The members of the Boulder boys soccer team likely would disagree with the notion, but the Panthers' exhilarating run to the school's first boys soccer state title could best be described as a team surging to the finish line out of nowhere.
When one of your top play-makers had been competing only on playgrounds months earlier, and your leading scorer began the season coming off the bench for sporadic minutes, and your team struggled to a 2-5 start before figuring things out, there really is no other way to describe it.
As the 2013 season nears kickoff, however, much has changed amid the Boulder program. The Panthers no longer are dark horses, instead playing the role of preseason favorite as they begin their defense of their Class 5A state title.
No one will be caught by surprise by the Panthers in 2013, yet head coach Hardy Kalisher is confident his club will readily handle the increased pressure.
"It's all about playing for each other, and 'La Familia,' is what we really thrive on," said senior Kevin Van Lieshout, referring to the motto of the 2012 state champs. "All the pressure and having the target on our backs, it just makes us want to play for each other even more. We're ready to take on all those challenges this year."
As was the case during the Panthers' stirring state tournament run, Boulder will be stout on defense, a unit led by senior goalkeeper Henry Huettel. The Panthers also will boast one of the top play-making tandems in the Front Range League in seniors Mason Douillard (five goals, 11 assists in 2012) and Javier Castruita (eight goals, seven assists), who had been competing in adult recreational leagues with his relatives before joining the Panthers' program last season.
Perhaps the only glaring loss for the Panthers was the graduation of Lake Brant, who came on strong during the second half of 2012 to finish with nine goals and five assists while earning the BoCoPreps.com Player of the Year award.
Kalisher, though, believes someone -- perhaps even an unknown quantity as Brant was at this time last year -- will emerge at the top of the Panthers' attack.
"We believe in our system of play and we believe we're successful when we're controlling the controllable stuff," Kalisher said. "Just like last year, I think there will be one or two players that emerge to put the ball in the back of the net that people aren't necessarily talking about right now."
While Boulder undoubtedly will be a team no one wants to face once the state tournament rolls around, it also might be a club that could elicit a few "What's wrong with them?"-type comments along the way due to the Panthers' brutal nonconference schedule.
The 2013 slate is identical to last year's, with the locations reversed, and Boulder once again will test its mettle against the state's best before taking aim at a conference crown. The Panthers open the season Thursday at home against Heritage and also face such perennial powers as Cherry Creek, Mullen, and Denver East within the first three weeks of the season.
"We've got to stay mentally strong and come to every game prepared mentally," senior Matteo Wilczak said. "Everyone is going to bring their best effort when they come to play us. If we get a couple losses, which hopefully we won't, we've just got to stay mentally strong and get through that."
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