Last season, the Van Horn boys soccer team made it to the Class 3 state final four for the first time in program history.

It was a surreal experience for the Falcons, whom head coach Jesus Rodriguez said were “just happy to be there.”

They fell 5-2 to Fort Zumwalt South in the semifinals and tied Springfield Glendale for third place after a scoreless tie. This year, Van Horn is gunning for a state championship. If anyone asks Rodriguez or any of his players, they have more than enough talent to get the job done.

“The first time we went, it was just to experience (the final four),” Rodriguez said. “Now, the guys know better. We know what we did wrong. And we have been working on them.

“We had a couple of goals scored on us (against Fort Zumwalt South) by not returning to defend the center midfield. We’ve been focusing on those little things in the preseason.”

The Falcons return the majority of last year’s team and only lost defender Brian Parra and forward Raynalso Jean-Pierre to graduation. They have many of their top players back to try to make a deep run in the playoffs.

“I am excited, to be honest,” sophomore Kobe Otano said. “We have two or three freshmen coming in that can make an impact on the team. They were good in middle school.”

Reigning Class 3 West Region Player of the Year and first-team all-state senior midfielder Angel DeAvila, who had 26 goals and 24 assists in 2018, will lead Van Horn. He will be joined by a pair of fellow all-state selections, junior forward Edison Rios (a team-high 36 goals, six assists) and senior midfielder Julio Rios (13 goals, 22 assists).

Julio is working his way back from a leg injury he suffered in the offseason. Rodriguez said he hopes to have him back for the season opener against Blue Springs at the Raytown South Tournament Saturday.

“Julio is not entirely fit for a match yet,” Rodriguez said. “He’s working on getting back into shape. We’re going to test him this week.”

However, a couple of other key returnees are also battling injuries. Rodriguez is uncertain if or when they will return. Senior midfielder Joxel Figueroa is battling a leg injury along with Otano, who was diagnosed with a torn ACL after getting an MRI.

“(Otano is) going to get a second look,” Rodriguez said. “When I see an ACL injury, typically a player cannot do much agility-wise with the ball. And he’s literally doing anything we ask of him. We’re wondering if it’s something else. But we don’t want to risk injury. (by playing him in a game).

“Joxel has problems with both knees. He did some workouts today. That’s positive news for us. He may only need two more weeks before he can start training.”

Even with those injuries, the Falcons have more than enough talent to fill in, Rodriguez said. Joining DeAvila and Julio Rios in the midfield is Erik Lopez, who will move up after playing on the back line last season.

“Erik has done a ton of work in the weight room and has worked on his agility and technical ability,” Rodriguez said. “We’re moving him to the middle because of it. We had a scrimmage the other day and he scored three goals.”

Freshman Enil Arteaga is one with high upside who could contribute. The Falcons nicknamed him “Fábregas” after Spanish soccer player Cesc Fábregas.

“He plays like (Fábregas), he’s always thinking ahead of the play,” Rodriguez said of Arteaga.

Added Otano: “He has really good feet and has a great touch.”

Sophomores Florencio Rojo and Diego Coronado and freshman David Arredondo are also expected to contribute in the midfield.

Edison Rios will be the starting striker, and freshman Carson Sumpter and senior Juan Rangel should see time on the wing in the three-forward formation.

“He’s very fast,” Rodriguez said of Sumpter. “Once everyone gets healed, he wants to play outside back.”

On the back line, junior Kyne Butcher returns as a center back. His teammates and Rodriguez noted that he’s become significantly stronger and faster. New starters Tony Chavira, a junior, and Jose Saenz, a sophomore, will serve as wing backs.

Rodriguez considers sophomore Daniel Aguilar a key addition to the defense as the other starting center back. Aguilar played exclusively for his club team last year but decided to take the field for the Falcons this season.

“Last year, he would have helped us for sure,” Rodriguez said of Aguilar. “Some (college) coaches are going to be interested in him. But to go by him, man, it’s difficult. Even Angel struggles against him. He can dominate both legs.”

At goalkeeper, junior Cooper Sumpter will return after starting for the first time a few games into last season. This year, however, he is likely to split time with senior Adrian Chavira, who was the starting goalkeeper at the beginning of 2018.

“I’ve gotten a lot better with my feet – kicking the ball and settling it,” Cooper Sumpter said. “I was a little bad at that last year, but I’ve gotten a lot better.”

After getting close to winning a state title last year, Rodriguez said his team is hungry to take the next step and claim the program’s first state title.

“I definitely have more depth than last year, and that’s something that’s going to help us along the way,” Rodriguez said. “How far we go will depend on us. We have the talent, but if we get ready mentally, I think we can do this.”