In soccer, good spacing between players is often the key to a successful offense. But when the soccer season is canceled outright, spacing between players is just one of the associated consequences.
Those consequences were especially dire for a Mark Morris boys soccer team which featured a dozen seniors on the roster this year. After narrowly missing the playoffs last year those elder statesmen of Monarch soccer were committed to a season of redemption so that they might walk off the field for the last time with a feeling of vindication to help ease their pain.
Thanks to the “invisible enemy” of COVID-19, though, that sizable group of veteran Monarchs were forced to walk away forever without so much as a handshake or a fist bump to commemorate the occasion.
“I can still vividly remember that Friday practice. I believe Inslee made the announcement on Thursday (Mar. 12) and we found out for sure on Friday morning that we were going to be paused for at least a couple weeks,” said the Monarchs first-year head coach, Chris Toms. “It was just gut wrenching. I was fighting back emotions as I was telling the kids.”
Although this was supposed to be Toms’ first year at the helm of the boys’ soccer program he already had 13 years under his belt as an assistant in the program. As such, he’s known each of the players since they first turned out and that familiarity helped to solidify his confidence in their potential this year.
“We are in a very tough league. Ridgefield and Columbia River are always up there at the top of the league, and the state,” noted Toms. “It’s a super tough league but this year we were shooting for the playoffs and I think we could have gotten there. And then from there, you never know.”
Indeed, with at least eight returning starters, plus a promising senior transfer in the mix, the Monarchs looked like they would be able to kick their way back into contention. With their goalie, junior Eber Navarrete, returning to the protect the net and a host of other experienced defenders ready to create a blockade Mark Morris was going to lean heavy on their defense to keep them in contention.
“This year our focus was really discipline and conditioning. We were going to do all the small things and get all the hustle points,” Toms said. “Our defense was looking pretty good. We had a couple of returners and a transfer who came in from Evergreen and was penciled in to start.”
That senior transfer was Joseph Hernandez and it didn’t take long for the new Monarch to catch his coach’s eye.
“He was showing amazing work ethic and attitude, coming to me after every practice and asking me, ‘What do I need to do? And what can I do better?’ As a senior, that’s not something you’re getting all the time,” noted Toms.
The defense was loaded with plenty of other veterans of the pitch as well. Mason Blain was a four-year player who operated as a leader on and off the field. He helped keep spirits high and made big improvements in the offseason as he looked to stabilize the defensive-mid position. Jordan Newkirk, a second year Monarch who transferred from Kelso, was set to return to his starting outside defender position this season and maybe even tend a little goal for measure.
“He’s another kid who was getting a hold of me in the offseason and was asking, ‘What can we do? What do we need to do to improve?’” said Toms. “He wanted to win.”
Marco Valdivia-Aldana was also a returning player with defensive chops, a physical presence on the field, and some raw goalie skills to boot. Kodee Soetamin, another four year player and a team captain, was set to return to his spot as a center back defender.
“He’s just an absolutely gifted athlete,” Toms said. “He’s a State swimmer and then comes into soccer at gets the same kind of accolades on land.”
Tino Cemulini, a center midfielder and a four-year player, was perhaps the Monarchs’ most heralded returner with All-League 2A GSHL credential already in his pocket.
“He’s kind of like the quarterback for the team. The ball always goes through him and he makes the decisions about where to distribute it,” Toms noted.
Nathan Naillon, another returning senior, was poised to make huge improvements this year thanks to a strong work ethic and a positive attitude, according to his coach, who had Naillon slated to start at midfield. Jacob Robertson, a physical player and a quiet leader, also boasted four years of experience and appeared ready to take over for good at outside-mid after earning Most Improved Player on varsity last season.
Maybe the most versatile player on the field would have been Timur Berishev, a four-year senior with skills to fit all over the pitch. Another team captain, Toms says Berishev was likely going to move up field this year in order to maximize his scoring opportunities. Bryce Sampson, yet another four year player for the Monarchs, was going to get work all over the field thanks to his selfless approach to the beautiful game.
“He’s been one of the most team oriented kids I’ve ever been around,” Tom explained. “He couldn’t care less about his success and personal accolades. He just wants to see the team succeed.”
Seniors Antonio Aquino, a second year player, and Nicholas Daniel, a first year player, were also set to help fill in the gaps for Mark Morris this year. Toms noted that what those players lacked in varsity experience they easily made up with work ethic and inspiring attitudes. Aquino likely would have started around midfield and Daniel is working hard to prepare for a stint in the Marine Corps.
There were also a handful of underclassmen set to help the Monarchs get back to the postseason. Freshmen Tristin Evans and Chayton Rodman figured to work into the rotation early along with returning sophomore players Ciro Belmontes and Edgar Gonzalez.
All told the Monarchs were stacked for a good run in 2020. Instead, though, they said see you later one Friday afternoon and then never came back. They were just following orders.
Toms said that the mandatory social distancing and the lack of contact with his players through all of the turmoil this spring has proved to be the hardest element to cope with.
“I haven’t been able to talk to these kids face to face and thank them for all their years in the program. I’ve had to send messages and make phone calls, which just isn’t the same,” Toms explained. “I will say that all of them have handled it incredibly well and they’re being pretty mature and taking this in stride and realizing that there’s a bigger picture here and they have their whole lives to look forward to.”
Coach: Chris Toms (1st year)
2019 Record: 4-7, 5th place GSHL
Returning Starters: 8
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