By Keeli Parkey
After ending the 2018 season with a loss in the district tournament, the Unicoi County High School Blue Devil soccer team is working hard to improve on those results.
“We have been conditioning throughout the year and the boys have been getting together on their own and playing throughout the year,” head coach Justin Ciralsky told The Erwin Record. “We had a very rainy preseason so practice has been tough. We have been very creative in finding places to practice so we are excited for the nice weather to come.”
An experienced squad will take the field for Ciralsky this season.
“We have a seasoned team with lots of senior leadership,” Ciralsky said. “Their experience and leadership will be essential to our success this season. Our expectations are to continue to grow throughout the season and make it to the state tournament.”
This season is just the fourth in the history of the UCHS soccer program. While the team has had success, including a district championship and substate berth in 2017, player development is a challenge, according to Ciralsky.
“One of our biggest hurdles is player development,” he added. “We don’t currently have a feeder program so I have been pleased with this year’s team and how they are investing in the younger players at the high school and middle school.”
Seniors on the 2019 team this season are: Jordan Hensley, Jason Gutierrez, Daniel Meza, Demecio Rodriguez, Martin Porras, Juan Ponce and John Andrade.
“These seniors have now been with us for four years, so they know and understand the expectations and have worked hard to teach the new players how the program works,” Ciralsky said.
Players expected to make important contributions on offense for the Blue Devils this season are Daniel Meza, Martin Porras, Armando Saldana and Juan Ponce. Defensive contributors are expected to be goalie Bryan Espinoza, Miguel Vasquez, John Andrade, Demecio Rodriguez, Jason Gutierrez and Ivan Diaz.
The Blue Devils will compete in a conference against Elizabethton, Greeneville, Sullivan Central, Sullivan South and Volunteer.
“South and Elizabethton are always good games that are super important for the conference tournament,” Ciralsky said.
Two factors will be key to the Blue Devils’ success in 2019.
“Hard work and focus,” Ciralsky said. “Stand as one is more than a motto. It’s our expectation for the year. We don’t have one or two players who are the stars of the team. We are developing the whole team and we will win and lose as one.”
Other players on the 2019 Blue Devil soccer team are: freshman Bryan Espinoza, freshman Ivan Padilla, sophomore Miguel Vasquez, sophomore Matt Hensley, sophomore Thomas Byrd, junior Armando Saldana, sophomore Lupe Sandoval, sophomore Daniel Raygosa, sophomore Javier Castellon, sophomore Jesus Perez, freshman Tristian Avila, sophomore Jose Ramirez, freshman Victor Reynosa, freshman Cesar Soto and sophomore Eloy Garcia.
Serving as an assistant coach again this season is Victor Chirica.
The Blue Devils opened the season with a 2-1 loss to Union High School on March 12 in Erwin.
“We were not focused and we didn’t take the game seriously,” Ciralsky said. “The other team exploited that. They took four shots and scored 2. We took 34 shots and scored 1.”
Ciralsky’s team bounced back on March 14 with a 7-2 victory over KACHEA at home. The Blue Devils held a 5-0 lead at halftime.
“We played much better,” he said. “We moved the ball well and were focused throughout the game.”
In the second half, Ciralsky was able to play the team’s less experienced players.
“It was good experience for them,” Ciralsky said.
They were scheduled to host Greeneville on Tuesday, March 19, and University High in Erwin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 21. They will also host Volunteer on Tuesday, March 26, at 6 p.m.