Last season was a magical one for the Van Horn soccer team, but it definitely didn’t end the way the Falcons wanted.

They finished the regular season with a 24-0 record, with KC Cup and Raytown Schools Tournament championships. However, the Falcons lost in the district championship game for the second year in a row to Kansas City East, and that’s something that head coach Jesus Rodriguez does not want to see again.

Winning a district championship for the first time since 2014 is the primary goal for the 2018 Falcons.

“I think we’re going to be a solid team,” Rodriguez said. “I told the guys that we have to learn from last season. I picked a stronger schedule because I would rather have us have a good playoff run, if not go all the way, than finish 25-1.

“We were surprised last year when we were beating some teams badly. We knew we were good and won two tournaments and thought we had something special. We went undefeated and that was something I did not expect. Then I felt like we got complacent near the end of the season.”

To make sure his team does not get complacent, Rodriguez requested that activities director Chris Corrie schedule more difficult opponents. This season, Blue Springs South, a Class 4 school, and Harrisonville, which made the Class 3 state final four last season, is on the schedule.

Van Horn will have to tackle a tougher slate of games following a year that 11 seniors graduated, including all-state goalkeeper Daniel Orozco and the team’s top goal scorer, Favian Valenzuela. But the Falcons still have a handful of returning starters coming back, including all-state midfielder and reigning Examiner Boys Soccer Player of the Year Angel DeAvila.

A talented freshmen class from Nowlin Middle School will join the returning players. Newcomers Kobe Otano, Darcy Mupenda and Diego Coronado are among those who could see significant time on the field.

“We’re going to have some young players come off the bench, but they are quality players,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just a matter of them hitting the weight room.”

Added midfielder Julio Rios: “Our freshmen are really good. They have great skills. We are going to be young but really good.”

Rodriguez said despite many newcomers joining the team, his Falcons still plan on utilizing a hyper press, a style of soccer that puts constant pressure on opposing teams on their half of the field.

He said that should help make an already strong offense even better. The Falcons return Reynalso Jean-Pierre, Juan Rangel and Edison Rios, who should provide a solid scoring punch and speed at the forward position.

“Edison might be the fastest guy we have,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be difficult to catch him.

“Juan had 12 goals last year. This year, I expect him to have 15, if not 20 or more. Last year was Favian’s year to score. Now, Juan knows this could be his year.”

DeAvila, who scored 23 goals and had 14 assists, and Julio Rios return to lead the midfield. Joxel Figueroa, who transferred to Van Horn from Truman, likely will join them as a starting midfielder.

“We’re debating on who will join us in the midfield,” DeAvila said. “We’re looking at Joxel and maybe Diego. We should still be able to score a lot.”

The defense is the area where the Falcons have the most question marks. Returning starter Bryan Parra, who Rodriguez called a “Cinderella story,” will lead the back line as a center back. Kyne Butcher, who got some playing time as an outside back, returns as the team’s other starting center back. Derin Goin, who got some varsity playing time at forward last year, will help out as an outside back.

“He came here from Mexico as a freshman,” Rodriguez said of Parra. “He was extremely horrible. His ball bounced off everywhere. Now, he’s a really good technical player. When the ball is in the air, he can head it to one of the other players. I know the ball is not going to go through in the back if it’s in his vicinity. He’s one of the best one-on-one defenders we have.

“Darin, pound for pound, was one of the strongest freshmen we had last year. If you look at him, he looks tiny, but he can bench (185 pounds) at least once.”

Replacing Orozco, who is now playing at Graceland University, will be the biggest challenge. Sophomore Tony Carrillo and junior Adrian Chavira are among those competing to be the starting goalkeeper.

“Adrian has the height and the skill to be our goalkeeper,” Rodriguez said. “Last year, he got some good training at keeper, which is helping him now. To be quite honest, he’s ahead of our other keepers on who is going to play on Aug. 25 (the season-opener).”

Even with some needed improvements on defense, Rodriguez expects his team to have a good season. If the Falcons can get past districts, Rodriguez has confidence that his team can make the state final four in Class 3.

“I would love the opportunity to have (a state quarterfinal game) here and fill up the sidelines,” he said. “It would be, ‘Hey! Let’s go. If we win here, we get to state!’ That’s something Van Horn has never done.”

Added DeAvila: “We’re pumped up to see how far we can go this season. We can’t wait until the season starts and play some of these bigger schools.”