As if winning the Blue Hen Conference Flight B championship banner wasn’t enough, the Yellowjackets boys soccer team did something the program hasn’t accomplished in over a decade – win a state tournament game.
“I think I first realized this team could be special after the first half of the first game of the year,” head coach Mike James recalled. “We knew that Division 1 powerhouse Caesar Rodney would be a very tough test and we were winning 1-0 for a good part of the first half. I told them at halftime that from this point they all know they can compete with any team in the state. You could see their confidence in themselves and the team grow each game from that point on.”
That confidence led to a 12-3 regular season record and the Flight B championship.
“It is a wonderful feeling becoming conference champs,” senior Mike Aullon-Gonzalez, a first-team all-state selection, said.
A conference title is an impressive feat any year but was even more so this season as three Flight B teams earned berths in the state tournament.
“The boys were beyond proud, since it had been so long since they won a conference title,” James said. “They also knew with a conference title that we had accomplished one of our main goals of making the tournament. From that point on, I saw another surge of energy in our practices and games.”
The Yellowjackets not only made the tournament but did so as the fourth seed, which meant they had a first-round bye.
“The boys knew that every game was going to be a tough test, especially with a first-round bye in the tournament,” James explained. “Only two players had ever played in a state tournament game, so there was definitely some nerves versus Tower Hill.”
Newark shook off the nerves and picked up the program’s first win in the state tournament in years with a 2-1 victory over fifth-seeded Tower Hill. But it wasn’t easy, as the match wasn’t decided until a penalty kick shootout.
“Getting our first tournament win in over a decade definitely helped with our confidence moving into the semifinal round,” James said.
In the semifinals, the Yellowjackets faced top-seeded Archmere Academy. Despite taking an early 1-0 lead, Newark couldn’t hang on to the lead and fell to the Auks, 2-1. Archmere went on to win the schools first ever soccer state championship.
“It was a very sad feeling. Myself and the team were crushed,” Aullon-Gonzalez said.
The Yellowjackets were led by a group of senior all-state selections. In addition to Aullon-Gonzalez, Maddyan Ata (first team), Adam Voigt (second team) and Scott Looby (third team) were all selected to all-state teams.
“It was clearly the senior leadership that helped bring this team together and their passion for the game was unbelievable,” James pointed out. “Maddyan is an amazing player and just fun to watch. Mikey and Adam primarily played the midfield and always were so technical, poised and patient with the ball at their feet. Scotty was just amazing on the backline and our biggest surprise this year. After losing our centerback and leader of the defense to a broken jaw midway through the season, Scotty took charge and shifted from right back to center back where he shined.”
Optimism around the program abounds as Newark returns seven varsity starters next year. However, James was quick to point out that this senior class is going to be sorely missed.
“The seniors’ work ethic and their high expectations for the underclassmen will be the biggest thing they will leave to the returning players,” he said. “They showed a lot of patience and trust when I made several adjustments to the lineups as well as showed great support to our freshmen and sophomores through some growing pains. They were just an unbelievably positive group and I really believe that was one of our keys to a successful season this year. I will miss our daily meetings in my room to discuss the team, watch film and design strategy for our next game. It was something I looked forward to each day.”
James has served in the role of head coach for the girls team at Newark for the past five seasons and as an assistant for the boys squad in recent years. However, this was his first year at the helm of the boys program and he admitted he is looking forward to already knowing he will be in that role next year as the offseason approaches.
“We are going to take a little time off to reflect on our season and enjoy our banquet, but then we will be right back at it in a few weeks,” he said. “We are already working on our winter indoor league for my boys and girls teams, and I am hoping we can get interest in camp this summer as well as get back to playing summer league. We will need our players to stay active in the offseason to take the next step next fall.”
A next step would mean a trip to the state championship game, something that hasn’t happened since 1991.
“Although my seniors will be very hard to replace, we definitely have some talented players waiting to step up to a bigger role,” James said. “I also hope with our improved facilities and success on the field this year that more students will consider Newark for a good education and quality soccer program. I am certainly optimistic for the future.”