Monday’s brutal blast of winter covered the field at Grain Valley’s stadium with ice-crusted snow. That, and the single-digit wind chills, didn’t keep the Eagles’ soccer team from getting in a little practice.
As awful as the conditions were, none of the Eagles could complain.
“We’re glad to be here,” Grain Valley midfielder Jack Knust said. “Obviously, it’s not the best conditions, but we’re one of the few teams in the state still playing. So we’re fortunate to be here.”
It’s going to be plenty cold tonight too, when Grain Valley takes on Belton in a Class 3 sectional game 6 p.m. at Southwick Stadium in Belton. Two other area teams pushed their sectionals back to 6 p.m. Wednesday: Van Horn plays host to Platte County in another Class 3 sectional, and St. Michael the Archangel Catholic meets Guadalupe Centers Charter in a Class 2 game at Lee’s Summit North.
Chilly postseason practices are nothing new for Grain Valley (14-4-3) but the Eagles still feel a sense of gratitude at getting this far. To snare their third district title in the last five years, Grain Valley had to gut out a 2-1 decision over Kansas City East with both goals coming on Knust penalty kicks.
Still, it was the Eagles’ eighth victory over their last nine matches. This is a team, Nichol said, with plenty of momentum going into the postseason.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Nichol said. “The intensity’s picked up. These guys have just gotten better as a group, they’ve come together and just believe in each other.”
Grain Valley really got going, NIchol said, when senior Nate Booker moved back in the formation. A forward since his sophomore year, Booker moved to center back when the Eagles played at Blue Springs Oct. 9 and escaped with a 1-0 victory. They have lost only one game since.
“We were struggling a little bit keeping the ball out of our net, so we decided to try something different,” Nichol said. “We put him in the back and we thought he was an animal back there. We’ve kept him back there since and it’s made a huge difference.”
Knust, a senior midfielder, has been good from the get-go for the Eagles. His two goals against East gave him a team-high 30 for the year, one shy of the school record held by Alex Thiessen. Alex Engram, a junior forward, has 10 goals and three assists.
“He’s just a super-dynamic player, and obviously the guys look up to him both on and off the field,” Nichol said of Knust. “He doesn’t even play as one of our forwards, but he’s so good on the ball and he has that change of pace that he’s able to create a lot going forward.”
Grain Valley and Belton were scheduled to play Oct. 28, but inclement weather wiped out the game and it was never made up. But Nichol knows plenty about the Pirates. Jared Smith, Belton’s head coach, was Nichol’s assistant his first two years at Grain Valley.
But first, the Eagles were going to have a little frosty fun.
“We don’t have to go to practice, we get to go to practice,” Nichol said. “We’re just going to enjoy our time together as a group no matter what the weather’s like. Honestly, it’s kind of fun.”
Van Horn (21-3), a state final four team last season, faces a 23-1 Platte County squad whose only loss came against Smithville Oct. 17. The Pirates average 3.8 goals per game, slightly less than Van Horn’s 4.2.
Junior forward Edison Rios leads the Falcons with 45 goals, senior midfielder Angel DeAvila has 20 goals and 21 assists and senior midfielder Juan Rangel has 11 goals and seven assists.
Even with all that firepower, Van Horn coach Jesus Rodriguez said the Falcons are still rounding into form as they aim for a second consecutive trip to the Class 3 state tournament.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to continue to work because we want to go back up there to St. Louis and the final four,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve still got quite a bit of stuff to do.”
St. Michael (12-8-2) has been a district champion in all three years of the program’s existence, but it has yet to win a sectional playoff. In Guadalupe Centers Charter (18-2), the Guardians face a team averaging 6.1 goals a game.
St. Michael’s attack is led by junior Lawrence Roccaro, who has 16 goals and four assists. Sophomore Charlie Putthoff has seven goals and eight assists, while junior Chris Oberkrom has seven goals and seven assists.
“We have a very tough matchup against a very talented Guadalupe Centers Charter,” St. Michael coach Rob Putthoff said. “They are technical, have great speed and are very dangerous on counter attacks. It will be a difficult matchup, but we look forward to the challenge.”