Young players step up in key roles for Notre Dame-West Burlington boys soccer team
Matt LevinsThe Hawk Eye
By now most soccer fans know the Notre Dame-West Burlington high school boys soccer regulars.
Seniors Arya Nowroozi, Cole Carper, Aidan Krell, Parker Davis, Cole Ward, Carson Wagner and Gabe Zurita and juniors Alex AbouAssaly and Hunter Lillie are well-known for their exploits on the soccer pitch for the Nikes. Each played a big role in helping the Nikes win the Class 1A state championship last year and each has played a key role in helping the Nikes return to the state tournament this year.
Notre Dame-West Burlington (17-3), the eight seed, will play top seed Western Christian (15-1) at noon Wednesday in a Class 1A state quarterfinal match at the James W. Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines. It will be a rematch of last year's state title match, which the Nikes won, 4-1.
But it all hasn't been about the well-known regulars. This year, a group of underclassmen has stepped up and made major contributions to the Nikes' success.
Without them, ND-WB would not be playing for a chance to repeat as state champions this week.
“It’s been tougher than previous years, but I think I’m adjusting pretty well. I think I can do a little better in passing, but other than that I don’t think I’m doing too bad," said junior midfielder Wyatt Pearson, who has scored two goals this season.
“As a freshman, I think I’m a pretty good player," said freshman midfielder Zach Wilke, who has two goals and one assist. "I am very thankful for the coaches for putting me in when I can. I’m usually one of the first people off the bench. Sometimes I start. I think I play a crucial role in the midfield, especially if someone gets injured.”
"We talked at the beginning of the season that we have some younger players who are going to need more playing time than we gave some of the younger guys last year," ND-WB head coach John Wagner said. "Part of our mission this year was to develop some of our younger guys. It's getting more difficult as we get to the state part of it, but I think we've done a good job of getting them playing time."
Other younger players making significant contributions to the Nikes' run to a second straight trip to state are juniors Matthew Booten, Lyblie Christofferson and Logan Kamrath, sophomores Seena Nowroozi, Bobby Wildrick and Connor Bush and freshmen Peyton Reichter, Caden Ott, Taylor Lundgreen and Aman Gandi.
And then there is senior Andrew Krantz, who has rejoined the team after playing baseball the last three years. Krantz is the life of the party, keeping things loose on the sideline during tense moments.
“This year has been quite an experience. My role on the team is trying to keep the guys competitive, going at them every day. Try to help them with everything I know from my past experiences," said Krantz, who plays midfield and forward. “I’m trying to keep everyone competitive, keep their spirits up. I think we’re ready for the task.”
Notre Dame-West Burlington went 23-1 last season en route to winning the Class 1A state championship in their first appearance at state.
But the Nikes graduated six seniors from that team in forwards Sam Brueck and Yosef Lee, goalkeeper Caden Murphy, defenders Tyas Kreiss and Dawson Gach and midfielder Jacob Kamrath.
That left some big holes in the lineup and some big shoes to fill.
Not to worry. The younger players have been ready, willing and able to step up into bigger roles this season.
“It’s been pretty fun," said Ott, who stepped into a starting role when Carper missed 10 games with an injury. "I haven’t played soccer for a couple years before this. I played way before in SESA, but I quit. Then I started playing here. I feel like I got better playing with guys like Parker and Gabe and Carson and Aidan. My role on the team is to be a defender, so having Aidan help guide me through stuff is really important.”
“I knew that with Tyas leaving and me being the backup for a couple games here and there, I was just looking at what my role was going to be on the team," said Booten, who has become a mainstay on an ND-WB defense which has 17 shutouts this season, including nine straight. "Tyas’ role on the team was he talked. He was our talker on the team. He led our team from the back. I knew I was going to have to step into that role and do what the defense does, which is not let people score.”
The veterans have taken the younger players under their wings, showed them the ropes and helped them develop. The younger players are the future of the program, and the veterans want to keep the winning tradition they have helped build continue.
“I was like , ‘Holy cow! How am I going to be this good?’ They are real good, so I feel like they are making me good, too," Lundgreen said. “(They taught me about) being respectful on the field. They do that really well. I think that is a Notre Dame-West Burlington thing, being respectful of others. I love the team.”
“Toughness. Being a little tougher. Not being afraid to go to the ball or do some moves," Pearson said.
“I’ve known a lot of them from club soccer at SESA," Wilke said. "Parker Davis is my neighbor. We’ve played kickback and soccer since we were really young. I know a lot of these guys. They have mentored me very well. I’ve improved a lot during the season.”
Seena Nowroozi has had the opportunity not only to be on the same team as his older brother, Arya, but also learn from him the past two seasons.
“It’s great being able to play with him the last two years. It’s an enjoyable experience," Seena Nowroozi said. “It’s been great. It’s brought us close than we were. It’s great being on the same team.”
The young Nikes have a chance to make a name for themselves this week. It all starts with Wednesday's quarterfinal match against Western Christian.
“I feel like a lot of people are nervous, but I really want to go up there and show what I can do," Ott said.
“It’s going to be great. I’m really looking forward to it," Seena Nowroozi said.
“It’s definitely been an experience full of joy. I feel like I’m really getting back at it. It’s been a blast playing with them," Krantz said. “These young kids are amazing, especially Zach and Caden Ott. They are very strong players. They are learning at a young age. They are going to be stars coming up.”
Matt Levins is a sports reporter for the USA TODAY Network in Burlington, Iowa, who has covered local sports for 31 years. Reach him at email@example.com.