Winning the Cascade Conference isn’t an impossible task in the eyes of South Whidbey senior Lake Smith and junior Julian Inches.
If they can learn from mistakes and shortfalls that kept them from claiming the title last year and out of the state tournament, then it’s theirs for the taking.
Standing in their way will be teams like returning 2A state champions Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest, which finished third.
Smith will embrace any challenges that could be ahead.
“I like playing better teams,” Smith said. “We get killed a lot by them, but in the end, I’m always learning. It’s always better to play with better people.”
The Falcons lost four seniors from a squad that finished 7-10 overall and 5-7 in the Cascade Conference. But they also return a core nucleus of varsity starters like Smith and Inches and others who missed the majority of last season with injuries like junior strikers Graham Colar and Nevin Daniels.
Head coach Emerson “Skip” Robbins is also back at the helm.
Robbins had resigned after the 2017 season because, in a nutshell, he was “burned out.” Injuries, suspensions, selling his house, moving to another home and family health issues created a brew of stress for the seventh year coach.
Smith was on the committee tasked with hiring a replacement. He and other players urged Robbins to return and even wrote letters to school administrators advocating for him to be hired.
Inches is glad it worked out.
“I think we’re all really happy to have Skip back,” Inches said. “I feel like everyone had their heads down and weren’t expecting much from this season. He’s really the heart and soul of the team.”
South Whidbey Athletic Director Paul Lagerstedt said Robbins was the best candidate.
“That’s why he got the job,” Lagerstedt said. “…He knows the kids and knows our program. It’a seamless fit.”
Robbins said he goes into every season expecting to have success. Though the team is small in numbers, he’s confident that if they stay healthy, avoid suspensions — which happened to some starters last year for violating the athletic code — then the Falcons can compete with any school in the conference.
“Last season was a very difficult one in which we had half or more of our starters out for much of the season, with either injuries or suspensions,” Robbins said. “Being a small school, it’s tough to overcome such circumstances. Hopefully, we won’t face the same type of adversity this season.”
The Falcons’ two losses in the 1A District 1 tournament were decided by penalty kicks, but Inches and Smith said that could have been avoided.
Smith said they were prone to rushing the ball up the field and more likely to waste possessions last season. It also hurt the defense when offensive players couldn’t help defend counterattacks.
He said the Falcons need to more patient and willing to let scoring opportunities develop before they’re squandered.
“It was a good experience in all,” Smith said. “We learned a lot of things.”
Smith and Inches are also encouraged that the majority of the team was part of South Whidbey’s U-19, FC Wild, which won the North Puget Sound League (NPSL) title in December.