Van Horn head boys soccer coach Jesus Rodriguez knows that it’s like to play on the big stage.
When he played for Graceland men’s soccer team in the mid 2000s, it made it to the final four of the NAIA Men’s Soccer Championship tournament twice at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“We went to the final four for the first time in the program’s history,” said Rodriguez, who was a three-time All-American. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re here.’ We were so hyped about it. We didn’t know what to expect. Once we started playing the games, we realized it was a lot harder to make it here than to win it. Unfortunately we lost because we didn’t have the experience.”
His Falcons (25-2) will be in a similar situation at 6 p.m. Friday when they take on Fort Zumwalt South in the Class 3 state semifinals at World Wide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo.
It’s the program’s first appearance in the state final four, and it will be unfamiliar territory for his players.
“Once we get there, I am going to have that talk with them,” Rodriguez said of his team playing in a big game.
He also plans on setting up a conference call with his brother Diego Rodriguez – who won a state championship in the past with Porter Early College High School in his hometown of Brownsville, Texas. He also played professionally in Mexico and was in the Major Arena Soccer League for three years.
‘I am going to see if I can get him on a FaceTime type of deal,” Rodriguez said. “It’s always good to hear from experienced players like that. Especially since he played in a state high school final in Texas.
“I was there during that final. It was like a professional game. The other side was packed with fans. It was a big atmosphere that he was a part of.”
While players like senior defender Brian Parra and junior midfielder Angel DeAvila haven’t played in the state final four before, they’ve had experience playing in a big stadium.
“Coach told us to prepare like we have every game up to this point,” DeAvila said. “It’s just a different place that we’re playing. We played at Creighton (University) over the summer. We’ve played at a big place before.”
Added Parra: “We’re used to it.”
The Falcons, however, are not used to playing a team like the Bulldogs (19-9). Rodriguez said they are not a fast team, but one that is adept at possessing the ball and fitting passes through tight spaces.
“They just kind of hang out then explode and try to find the front post and flick one over or try to head it in,” Rodriguez said. “They go at a slower pace, but they are technical, which is equally dangerous. If you leave a space open, they will punish you.”
Fort Zumwalt South has an explosive forward that Parra and the back line will have to watch out for, as well.
“They have a good striker who is tall and strong,” Parra said. “I am going to have to focus on him.”
Rodriguez said staying disciplined is the key to slowing down South’s attack – something the Falcons struggled to do in a 3-2 sectional win against Kearney a week ago.
“I got on them after the game against Kearney,” Rodriguez said. “I had a strong chat with them about playing their heart out, and not letting an opponent intimidate them.
“We have to stay composed and stay on our guy until we get help.”
The Falcons will have their explosive offense to lean on. They have averaged four goals per game in the postseason and have several players who are a threat to score.
“The hyper press is something Coach Rodriguez has taught us in the three years I’ve been at Van Horn,” DeAvila said. “It’s one of the reasons were successful in the opponent’s third (of the field). If we continue to press and find our forwards, it will be a good game.”
Rodriguez said he hopes the Falcons can put together a strong effort in both phases on Friday. After all, he still has high expectations for them.
“This will be an experience the guys will never forget,” Rodriguez said. “We never know what’s going to happen, but we’re going to try our best to bring it home.”