Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Here to stay’: Mead seniors lead boys soccer program to third consecutive state tourney

Mead boys soccer didn’t win the Greater Spokane League championship this season. In fact, the Panthers, led by third-year coach Tanner Wilburn, entered the district tournament an underdog as the No. 5 seed.

But they rode a pair of one-goal wins – including a 1-0 decision over top-seeded Ridgeline – to the district title game, where they dispatched second-seeded Hermiston (Oregon) 4-1 to reach state for the third year in a row.

Mead, the 10th seed at state, faces seventh-seeded Edmonds-Woodway in a first-round game at Central Kitsap High School at 4:30 p.m. Friday.

“There was really a feeling, especially in our first district playoff game,” senior RC Wells said. “(Wilburn) actually sat us down and wrote all the seniors names up on the board and said, ‘If you don’t want to play for me, or play for yourself, play for these seniors. Because we’re not going to end early. We’re going to make it to state and make it all the way.’ ”

Those seven seniors – Wells, Kye Welch, Wes Starley, Conor Vue, Anthony Vang, Hudson Byrd and Kevin Nguyen – have been the catalyst for a tremendous turnaround for a program that hadn’t qualified for state for many years up until they broke through in 2022.

“I think the leadership that they brought and the intensity and mentality from a program that hadn’t been a state for years,” Wilburn said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to implement – that we’re not teams from the past and show them, you know, what Mead soccer was before in the ’90s and ’80s. They were a powerhouse.”

Qualifying for state three years in a row is a good start to getting back to that “powerhouse” status.

“These teams have been good,” Wilburn said. “It’s just getting them to think that they can win and know that they can win and figure out how, because there’s a lot of good players that have came through here throughout the years and they just still haven’t been able to get over the hump and make some noise at state. I mean, we’ve been there two years in a row and we’ve lost in the second round the last two years. So it’s not easy.”

Welch is captain and a four-year varsity starter. He was first-team All-GSL as a sophomore and defensive MVP his junior season before injuries robbed him of much of his senior year.

“He’s definitely the best center back in the area,” Wilburn said. “A great kid always pushing the other kids to be better.”

“We have a lot of good players here,” Welch said. “I feel like our chemistry is good. … We battled injuries but came out ready for the postseason against the healthy teams. We showed them why we should have won. We had, he had a chip on his shoulder, you could say.”

Starley is a first-team, all-league forward and “can score from anywhere with his left foot,” Wilburn said.

Starley thinks the large group of seniors is what drives the team.

“We’ve been friends for a while,” he said. “We’ve been teammates for four years in high school and we’ve played club together as well. We see each other at school every day and hang out. I think being seniors, being the leaders of the team, and also being friends it makes the whole team connection closer which drives us to do better and succeed on the field as well.”

The success Mead has had in girls soccer and other sports has been a motivating factor in the resurgence of the boys soccer program.

“Mead soccer hasn’t had the best reputation, like Mead basketball or football, you know,” Wells said. “But yeah, I feel like this is really soccer’s time right now. We’ve made state three years in a row now. … Mead soccer is here, and here to stay, hopefully. It’s been really special to make an impact on Mead athletics and around school, for sure.”

“We just knew we had the ability to do well in Spokane, and even outside of Spokane,” Starley said. “We pushed ourselves to become better and get better so that the Class of ’24 could succeed at Mead and beyond.”

Wilburn describes defender Wells as “a late bloomer.” He played JV in his sophomore year before getting called up for the playoffs. He didn’t get a lot of playing time initially but ended up becoming a starter as a junior. This year Wells, who will play at Whitworth next year, has emerged into a leadership role and blossomed into someone Wilburn can rely on – on the field and off.

“There are different paths,” Wilburn said. “It’s worked out well for (Wells). … He’s not very fast. He’s not very big. So he has to know his angles and he has to know his abilities and his job, and he does very well at playing within his limitations. We’re not all professional soccer players out here.”

Wilburn describes Wells’ younger brother, sophomore Rocky Wells, as a “very special player that doesn’t come around very often.” The younger Wells was named GSL offensive MVP this season.

With the injuries, Wilburn said Friday’s state contest will be the first one “with our full team” this season. Still, the GSL regular season prepared his team for the rigors of district and state play.

“It’s a very tough league. I think it is underappreciated how tough,” Wilburn said. “You have (Lewis and Clark) out of the GSL who is top 10, Mt Spokane top 10, Mead, as well as Ridgeline. It’s tough to win in this division and in this league. It’s full of very talented players, very talented keepers. But (injuries) helped us because it’s given me confidence in players that maybe I wouldn’t have had confidence in at the start of the season.”