Life in the crosshairs has never been this much fun.
The target is squarely on their backs, but the Mead Panthers are embracing the chance to defend their Greater Spokane League boys soccer title.
“It feels good that your team is respected and feared in the GSL,” senior goalkeeper Eric Bjerkestrand said before practice on a sunny Monday afternoon.
“To get to that level is a little bit of a target on our back, which inspires us to play harder.”
The place to start? Defense, of course, the kind that gave up just 10 goals in as many games en route to a wire-to-wire title, which the Panthers won by two games with an 8-1 record.
“It’s nice that we have a lot of veterans in the back because I graduated a group last year that was very strong up front,” said third-year coach Kevin Houston, who is also the defending GSL Coach of the Year.
“That group set a great example of how we need to train, how we need to play, and this group has done a good job of that as well,” added Houston, who has yet to pick team captains but knows who his leaders are.
That includes Bjerkestrand and senior defenders Tim Wilson, Craig Silver and Mac Sheppard, plus midfielder Nolan Eldridge, who was an all-GSL second-teamer last year as a sophomore.
“It’s good for the younger kids for us to be a role model, to way to carry Mead to high expectations,” Silver said.
As a first-year starter in 2012, Bjerkestrand made all-GSL second team and “made some great strides at the end of the season,” Houston said. “And he showed a lot more confidence in goal.”
The backs hope to take it from there.
“We want to bring back the blue-collar mentality and outwork teams,” Wilson said.
If all goes well, the Panthers will finish better than last year, both in scoring and winning. Four of those last 10 goals came in the district opener against Lewis and Clark, a 4-3 loss that sent Mead on the road and eventual elimination in the regionals at Davis of Yakima.
“District and the Davis game, that was pretty rough,” Bjerkestrand said. “But we’re confident we can get back there and beyond.
“There were a lot of lessons learned.”
Another lesson: Don’t take anything for granted. A year ago, preseason favorite Central Valley stumbled out of the gate in the first week, losing 3-2 to these very same Panthers.
Well, not the same team. And that’s more than half the fun.
“You don’t want to let the younger guys down,” Sheppard said. “You want to be a role model.
“And they’re starting off fantastically.”