Warriors know regional means step up in play
Change in air
After a fall filled with mild temperatures, a bleak, wet, cool afternoon Wednesday forced several Sterling Golden Warrior soccer players into long sleeves, gloves and stocking caps for practice.
Guiding the practice from the sideline, first-year coach Brian Cebula wore a heavy, black winter coat. Cebula, who served as an assistant coach to Chris Interone with the Warriors the last few years, knows that more than the weather is about to change for the Warriors.
The 2A Rochelle Regional begins Tuesday, with the top-seeded Warriors playing No. 4 Dixon.
It'll be the third meeting between the Route 2 rivals, with the Warriors handling Dixon in the first two matches. But Cebula understands history well enough to know he can't let his team get too confident.
His first lesson hearkens back to a turning point in Warrior soccer history. In 2010, a young, talented Sterling squad beat a favored Geneseo team 4-3 in triple overtime, after losing to them twice during the regular season.
"You go back 3 or 4 years ago, and we had basically got crushed by Geneseo twice during the regular season," Cebula said. "When the regional gets here, everything can change. Teams can get on a roll. We can't look past anyone."
Sterling went on to claim the program's first regional crown, and eventually lost in the sectional final to Burlington Central.
More recent history has left a more bitter taste in the Warriors' mouths. Sterling was the top seed a year ago against Rochelle, a team it beat 5-2 during the regular season. The second go-round went badly in the first game of the regional, as Rochelle won 2-1.
"There are young guys that were on that team," Cebula said, "and they know that anything can happen."
For Sterling (14-3-4), it will be about continuing to get strong play from players around the field.
For most of the fall, a lot of ink has been spent on what happens in the last third of the field for the Warriors.
In case you've missed it, it has to do with the Warriors' talented pair of forwards, Tony Diaz and Carlos Gallardo, who combined for 59 goals and 38 assists through 20 matches.
But, as Cebula will tell you, those goals are the result of players all over the field manning their positions.
Take players like Santana Trujillo or Sebastian Uresti, who play midfield for the Warriors.
"Santana has really blossomed in the center this season," Cebula said of the sophomore. "He got some playing time last year. He's taking care of the ball so well, and that's going to be so important going into the playoffs."
Uresti – who assistant coach Gabe Ocampo says heads the ball better than any high schooler he's seen – gains possession and makes the pass to Trujillo.
It's then Trujillo who tries to get the ball down to Diaz or Gallardo. He might have to use outside-mid Jose Uresti to get it there.
"I try to stay wide, give him some room to get me the ball, and then we can work it down the field," Jose Uresti said. "It's important that we move without the ball and try to get open for him."
"It's all about working together as a team," Trujillo said. "We work hard on it every day at practice. I am just trying to get the ball down the field."
As the Warriors control the ball longer, it allows for their defenders to sneak up and join the attack. One of the players to take advantage of that has been Jorge Garcia, who has five goals and three assists.
"He's become very adept at sneaking up there and making plays when we need them," Cebula said. "It puts a lot of pressure on other teams when we can do that."
If Sterling gets past Dixon in the first match, they'll play either No. 2 Freeport or No. 3 Rochelle in the championship match Friday.
They have an obvious bone to pick with Rochelle from a year ago. The Warriors also have a bitter taste in their mouths concerning Freeport.
Sterling played Freeport in the first match of the season at a tournament in DeKalb. The Warriors led 4-0 in the second half, and then allowed four goals to the Pretzels in a match that concluded in a tie.
"We just go too confident," Jose Uresti said. "We learned from that match. We can't let up. We tell ourselves no matter the score, that we have to keep playing like it is 0-0."