Rangers eye redemption in upcoming tournament

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 23, 2013 

Sean Connor's Boys' 12-U Whatcom Rangers Gold soccer team rarely loses. Only once in 14 matches has it happened this year.

So when it did, Connor didn't miss the opportunity, knowing other losses might be few and far between.

"I am a believer that you can learn more from losing than you can from winning," Connor said in a phone interview. "Even in games that we have won, they have been a really slow starting team. They don't come out ready to play right away. I don't want to say I was happy, but I finally I had something to back my point that they were slow starters because they got scored on three times in the first 15 minutes.

"That was the best coaching point we have been able to have all this year."

The Rangers fell to Snohomish United 4-1 in group play at the 2013 Nike Crossfire Challenge in Redmond in mid-June, eventually costing them a bid into the semifinals - the only tournament the 12-U Rangers have not won this year.

The Rangers will have their opportunity for redemption, as they will face that same Snohomish United team in their second game of the 2013 Puma Pacific Coast Challenge soccer tournament starting Friday, Aug. 23, at the Northwest Soccer Park.

It's a matchup both Connor and his players are looking forward to.

"I think they're going to think we are going to be super bad again because we weren't quite having a very good day," said Addison Shrock, the Rangers' starting left-winger, in a phone interview. "But I think they are going to try to not take it easy, but they are going to think it is going to be super easy. The same thing happened in the second half of that game. They started being really lazy, and they thought they were way better than us, but I think this time we will have a better outcome."

The loss provided substance to the point Connor had believed all season, that his team came out sluggish in the first 15 minutes. Only problem was, it was hard to argue against the team's constant winning ways. That wasn't the case at the practice following the loss, as he addressed his growing concern immediately with a new approach.

"When we have practice, I am (having) them go through a game warm-up, like they would be getting ready for a game in a tournament, then we are going to scrimmage right away so it simulates that same atmosphere," Connor said.

Much of this year has been a feeling out process for the first-year coach. Despite having played soccer at WWU for three years, his last season being 2011, and being a high school standout at Mount Vernon High School before that, he was the new guy when taking the field with the 12-U Rangers.

"This is a group of boys that has been playing together for several years," he said. "They have had a lot of success playing together. ... It was interesting for me because they all knew what position they played, or they thought they knew what position they played, so I was the one that had to learn really quickly where to put these guys."

That experience together manifests itself in various ways, both during practice and games, Connor added.

One case in particular that he has noticed is that his players understand each other's skill sets, and play to them.

"These kids already know that this player is slow, so (they) can't play him 30 yards down field because the defender is going to be faster than him," he said. "They know he is a skill player, and they play him to his feet and he will be more successful."

Shrock, in particular, has benefitted from that understanding.

Despite not being gifted with great speed, as Connor explained, Shrock's ability to negotiate the ball between defenders in traffic has been a large reason for the success of the Rangers. He's even taken to using a particularly interesting move to get around defenders called the "Nutmeg," or "Megging," where he passes the ball in between the defenders' legs.

"I like to put the ball to the side so when they reach out to get it, their legs are wide open," Shrock said. "It averages out to once a game, twice a game."

Crafty footwork isn't all that goes into the 11-year-old's game, and is by no means the only reason he is averaging at least a goal a game.

"I've never seen an 11-year-old strike the ball as well as he does," Connor said. "There was one at the Baker Blast, against Rush, and he got the ball on the left side, top corner of the 18-yard box and megged the same kid twice in a row and shot it far post. It was a knuckler and went side-net into the goal. It was incredible."

Each goal is a testament to the work Shrock puts into it, venturing five or so days a week up to the local high school to practice. That's why it looks so effortless, Connor said.

But as important as Shrock is to the offense, Jordan Gill is equally as important to the defense.

Gill is an anomaly on a team that is filled with players that like to score. The typical mentality of soccer players at every age is to want to score goals, Connor said, but every team needs guys who will do the dirty work. Enter Gill.

"He loves playing defense," Connor said. "He doesn't want to score goals. He wants to stop the other team from scoring goals."

Like any good defender, Gill operates in a way that makes him largely indistinguishable on the field.

Conner recalled a moment where he turned to his assistant coach midway through a game and said he hadn't noticed Gill once.

"I looked at him, I didn't even notice Jordan has been on the field,'" he said. "He is the kid that flies under the radar. ... He does all the little things that you love as a coach."

Gill's most distinguishable impact comes not during the game, but at the end when Connor holds a score sheet that says his team didn't allow a goal.

PUMA PACIFIC COAST CHALLENGE 2013

When: Friday, Aug. 23 through Sunday, Aug. 25.

Where: Northwest Soccer Park

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