Take a look at the 2015 all-Cascade Conference boys soccer team, and there are a lot of South Whidbey High School names listed.
Bryce Auburn, Jeff Meier, Davin Kesler, Kai da Rosa, Andy Zisette, Charley Stelling, Anders Bergquist, Kameron Donohoe, and Lucas Leiberman: Nine in all, five were voted to the first team, representing the top 14 players as voted by coaches. Eight of them just graduated from South Whidbey on Saturday, and only one is expected to return to the squad next season.
“I was very happy,” said Falcon co-head coach Emerson “Skip” Robbins, always one to fight for his team in a match and in postseason accolades. “I felt like we had maybe one player slighted, and that was it.”
“I can’t complain,” he added. “We did very well.”
South Whidbey, en route to a second consecutive state 1A tournament berth and a 17-5-0 overall record, became an offensive force. The Falcons poured in a league-high 79 goals — seven more than the state 2A champions of Archbishop Murphy — against conference foes, and 104 overall.
Four of South Whidbey’s all-conference selections — Meier, Zisette, da Rosa and Leiberman accounted for nearly half of those goals.
Meier, an attacking midfielder who owned the left sideline, set the South Whidbey High School scoring record this season. He poured in 25 goals, beating the previous-high mark held by Joseph Supang, who went on to play for Seattle University and eventually professionally overseas, by one score. Meier also recorded 12 assists.
Before Meier became a Waterman’s Field sensation and recorded four hat tricks (at least three goals in a single match), he was coming off the 2014 season marred by injuries and a heartbreaking loss in the state tournament. He dedicated himself to training and conditioning in the offseason, leading Robbins to say that any time he stopped by the soccer field of South Whidbey, he’d see Meier there practicing on his shot, dribbling, crosses and running sprints.
“He’s worked harder on his game than any player on the team,” Robbins said.
Meier was set to impress the league coaches and get on the all-conference first team. Before the season began this March, Meier said he jokingly told his brother that he would set the scoring record. After scoring six goals in the first two matches, he started to think it was within reach.
Spending six days a week on the soccer field, plus five days a week at a gym doing speed training and weight lifting helped hone his body into a wound-up rocket capable of booming ballstrikes.
“Having Skip behind me, in my corner, was really nice also,” Meier said. “The quality of the midfield, everywhere else, all made it possible.”
South Whidbey’s offense was built to be potent from nearly every angle: down the middle, the lone starting striker; on either side, a formidable midfielder barreling down the sideline and looking to charge or cross back into the goalie box.
On the right sideline was Zisette. Towering over most defenders, Zisette drew the attention of opposing defenses and for good reason. He scored 16 goals with 10 assists this season — after scoring only five in 2014 — despite seeing his playing time cut short due to injury late in the postseason.
Being sidelined was “awful,” Zisette said in a text message Tuesday morning. “It was one of the worst feelings watching your team losing and not being able to help.”
Prior to South Whidbey’s bitter end, a 3-2 loss to Bellevue Christian in the second round of the state tournament, Zisette was flying high.
His game came on strong about midway through the regular season. Right when da Rosa was out for a four-game stretch, Zisette found his footing. He scored a pair of hat tricks and at times seemed completely unstoppable along the sideline. Confidence, he said, was the biggest reason he made a major leap this season.
He’d pin the ball to the sideline, back to the defender, feel him out and spin. Within two strides, he was a dozen feet away with nothing but turf and air between him and the goalie.
“This year, he was so much bigger and stronger than last year,” Robbins said. “But he had the ability because he has tremendous speed. If he can get the first couple steps on a guy, if it comes to a footrace there are very few guys that are going to catch him.”
Kai da Rosa
Blazing down the middle of the field with long, elegant strides was da Rosa. In 2014, he was the league-leader in points (goals and assists). Facing double and triple-team defenses this season, da Rosa found ways to work around and smash through them for 12 goals and seven assists.
“Kai’s a monster,” Robbins said. “Joel (Gerlach, co-head coach) feels that Kai is one of the three best strikers at South Whidbey High School.”
“He has that thing that pure strikers have, where they have an overwhelming need to score,” Robbins added. “They smell blood near the goal. It’s a very rare thing.”
da Rosa also had a penchant for drawing colors from the refs. Robbins said his striker collected at least six this season, some were warranted, others less so.
“We called him a yellow-card magnet,” Robbins said.
During the school’s spring break, da Rosa visited colleges in Hawaii and missed a match. Upon returning, he came down with an illness that lingered for weeks, and da Rosa’s recovery was slow, but came at the right time as South Whidbey pushed for a top seed in the postseason as the Cascade Conference’s top 1A team.
Holding the defense together was senior Bryce Auburn, one of the co-captains. The deep-voiced defender who moonlighted as the school’s live-action role-playing club founder found a way to stop an opposing attack with headers, slides, and speed.
“Without Bryce, we might have finished fourth, honestly,” Robbins said. “Bryce was so dominating, and I’m shocked the other coaches didn’t see it. He was constantly heading out balls, clearing balls.”
“Totally tenacious, super aggressive,” he added. “One of the most aggressive center-backs I’ve ever coached, probably one of the top two best I’ve ever coached.”
Auburn repeated as a first-team defender. He credited the coaches for sticking with him — he missed his entire freshman season with a back injury but showed up to every practice to help shag balls and set up cones — and giving him the keys to the defense.
“I couldn’t ask for two better coaches,” said Auburn, of Robbins and Gerlach in a text while recovering from having his wisdom teeth removed. “They both push all of us to be better and they give us the tools to do those things.”
Playing defensive midfielder, Davin Kesler didn’t see as much action near the other team’s goal as his talent warranted. But he knew where he was needed and South Whidbey utilized his skills often to reset and transition from defense to offense with a couple passes.
Kesler is one of those players that coaches and sports radio and TV broadcasters call a “student of the game.” When the slight Freeland kid, whose dad is admittedly a baseball guy, isn’t playing soccer either on a field or in a video game, he’s watching it. English Premier League, CONCACAF, UEFA, MLS, World Cup, you name it, he’s watched it.
“I’ve always been a sports guy,” said Kesler, recently graduated and enjoying the spoils of a lazy summer such as sleeping in on a Tuesday morning. “My dad is a big baseball guy. From early on, I loved that, in soccer, play never ends. It’s always changing, always moving.”
Kesler could take the ball from the defense, turn, dribble in two steps away from pressure while scanning the field for the three-headed spearhead of Meier, da Rosa and Zisette, and boot the ball to either corner 25 yards with accuracy. He said that those skills are part of the job and integral to the game.
“Good players understand how to receive a ball, turn and send the ball,” Kesler said. “The best players already know what’s going on.”
Later he added that having played with so many of his teammates for most of their lives helped build an innate understanding of their tendencies.
“We’ve been playing with all these guys for a while,” he said. “I know the runs Andy’s going to make, I know when Jeff wants the ball, I know when Kai is going to come back to the ball.”
Robbins said his vast understanding of soccer made Kesler like an on-field coach. He moved people into position, could offer adjustments during halftime and covered for others’ mistakes with a go-to slide tackle.
“You ask anybody on our team who the real coach of our team was,” Robbins said. “He is a coach on the field, he understands the game better than everyone I’ve ever coached … I’ll bet he understands better than 95 percent of the coaches.”
South Whidbey’s four second-team selections include now-graduates Charley Stelling, Anders Bergquist, Kameron Donohoe, and junior Lucas Leiberman.
As the Falcons’ goalie, Stelling recorded 13 shutouts and likely dozens of saves. South Whidbey coaches do not keep detailed defensive statistics, but the Falcons allowed only 14 goals all season.
“Charley has the best reaction of any keeper I’ve ever coached,” Robbins said. “He is quick as a cat.”
Bergquist, the other center-back defender, was part of South Whidbey’s stingy, one-two pressure-and-cover strategy.
“If you’ve got a guy coming to goal against you and you only have one guy to defend, Anders would be right up there at the top of the choice,” Robbins said.
Donohoe became a stalwart midfielder who relentlessly pressured the ball and had fits of brilliant dribbling, interspersed with some questionable decisions that found him surrounded by defenders.
“We call Kam the Energizer bunny, that’s my nickname for him,” Robbins said. “He’s all over the place, a Tasmanian devil on defense.”
Leiberman was one of South Whidbey’s top scorers with 17 goals and 10 assists this season. The junior midfielder was an expert at keep-away, both taking the ball in the midfield and keeping it in the midst of defensive pressure.
“The way he can take the ball off somebody’s feet is tremendous,” Robbins said. “He’ll get in front of them and just take the ball away.”