This has been a season of learning and progress for the Herndon High boys’ soccer team. Just one year removed from its breakthrough 2008 season in which Herndon captured the Concorde District title and finished 15-2, this year’s Hornets entered the spring as a younger, less accomplished outfit. But, under veteran coach Sean Lanigan, the team improved over the course of the regular season and concluded the schedule with a winning record at 6-5-1. The Hornets also finished a respectable third place in the district standings.
As a result, Herndon, as this week’s No. 3-seed at the Concorde District tournament, was scheduled to face No. 6 Oakton in a first round playoff contest on Monday. The postseason meeting was huge for both teams with the winner advancing to Wednesday’s semifinals and automatically qualifying for next week’s 16-team Northern Region tournament, and the loser seeing its season end.
Lanigan recently said his team was playing at a good level going into the playoffs.
"We transitioned slowly but surely [over the season] and we’re playing well right now," he said, of the natural growing pangs this season’s younger squad had to go through.
During its final week of the regular season last week, Herndon won a district contest at Oakton, 4-0, on May 5 before wrapping up the regular season schedule with a 2-0 loss at non-district opponent Wakefield in Arlington on May 7.
In that setback to the Warriors, one of the region’s better teams this spring, Lanigan elected to give many of his starters a rest in preparation for the playoffs. He brought up around 10 JV players, five of whom started in the varsity game, and he also started varsity players who have received limited playing time this season.
Lanigan was curious to see how well his talented JVers would compete against a good varsity team. He was not disappointed. Outside of two breakaway Wakefield goals, one coming in the first half and the latter coming within the final 30 seconds of the match, Lanigan was impressed with his makeshift squad’s play against the Warriors, a senior-laden team that was celebrating their Senior Night.
"We missed a couple of opportunities," said Lanigan, of scoring chances that came up empty. "We could not connect with a lot of passes. Some of our guys were a little loss at the pace of the game. We had eight or nine freshmen [on the field] at certain times and it was a little intimidating for some of the kids. Wakefield caught us on two breakaways. It was a fast-paced game.
"[But overall] the young kids proved themselves well against Wakefield," said Lanigan. "Wakefield only has one or two losses."
The win over Oakton earlier in the week was a different story, as Herndon played its regular line-up against the Cougars. Freshman striker EK Korvah, Herndon’s top scorer this spring, punched in two goals to lead the way to the 4-0 triumph. "He had a great game up front," said Lanigan, of Korvah’s play.
Herndon recently took a late season jolt when one of its best, experienced players, senior striker Uwem Etuk, was lost for the remainder of the season with a serious knee injury. The quiet Herndon leader and playmaker had put together an outstanding season and was a key mentor and assist man to his younger teammate, Korvah.
"He ran our midfield and was our engine in the middle, and he set up EK a lot," said Lanigan, of Etuk’s play.
Making the injury worse for Etuk is that it comes at the end of his senior year.
"He’s very disappointed," said Lanigan.
Etuk recently earned a scholarship to play soccer next school year at the University of West Virginia.
<b>LANIGAN WAS NOT</b> expecting his team to take things for granted when it went up against Oakton in the district tournament playoff affair earlier this week. The winner of that contest was scheduled to meet the Robinson (No. 2 seed) versus Fairfax High first round winner on Thursday.
"Oakton is still a solid group and we can’t look past them even though we won convincing over them [last week]," said Lanigan, this past Sunday. "I think if we play our game we should be able to do real well."
Should Herndon defeat Oakton in Monday’s playoff game, it would likely meet a powerful Robinson team in a semifinals game. Without Etuk in the line-up, Lanigan said other players would have to step up in a possible meeting against the Rams.
"We’re going to need three or four guys off the bench to play well," said the coach. "[Our guys] will rally."
Four Herndon players were recently selected by the coaches to the All-Concorde District’s First Team. Those players were: Etuk, goalie Alex Stopa, defender Alex Darwiche and Korvah.
"I was quite pleased we had four representatives," said Lanigan.
One of the team’s great story lines this season was the play of Darwiche, a senior team captain and a vocal leader who was called upon to move to a defensive position this season because of key graduation losses from last year. Darwiche ended up playing outstanding at his new position.
"He really elevated his team [with his fine play]," said Lanigan.
It marked the first time Darwiche earned All-District recognition.
"He was on cloud nine when I told him [on Saturday]," said Lanigan. "He was very pleased, very humbled."
The district seedings for this week’s playoffs are as follows: Westfield (No. 1 seed), Robinson (No. 2), Herndon (No.3), Centreville (No. 4), Chantilly (No. 5), Oakton (No. 6) and Fairfax (No. 7).