For a team that had won four state boys soccer championships over the previous 11 years, it was odd to see George Washington fly under the radar a bit in winning the Class AAA state title a year ago.
After surviving a chaotic 3-2 double-overtime win over Princeton in a Region 3 final — a game in which the Patriots came up with a goal with 12 seconds remaining to claim victory — GW claimed its fifth title after much of the talk coming in had revolved around University and Hurricane.
But with eight starters back this season, GW won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
Gone are forwards Chance Anderson and Noah Carney as well as defender Adam Pack, but the always deep and dangerous Patriots are geared up with a talented and experienced roster to make a run at winning consecutive state crowns for the first time in program history.
“We haven’t had a beginning-of-the-season lull, they’ve come out and played hard against each other from the first day,” coach Eric Engle said. “We’ve got a lot of returning varsity players — about 17 — and we have most of the starters back.”
Engle guided the Patriots through a sometimes-tough early season a year ago and had GW playing its best when it counted most — all in his first season at the helm.
But riding that late-found momentum a year ago, GW will aim to stay hot from the outset this year behind four captains. One of those is three-year starter Zak Abdul-Jalil, a Class AAA first-team All-Stater a year ago who will lead the always stingy GW defense in its title defense.
“I’ve just had really good leadership ahead of me in past years,” Abdul-Jalil said. “My freshman year, I was lucky enough to make varsity and seeing how those kids mentally prepared for the game, I learned a lot from them.”
With 15 seniors in the fold, Engle compared this year’s GW squad to the 2013 and 2016 teams — both of which won state championships. Two of those seniors — E.J. Davis (forward) and Matthew Vaughn (midfield) — join Abdul-Jalil as captains, as does junior striker Max Tretheway, the team’s leading returning scorer with 13 goals and 14 assists a year ago.
Together, those players and other returners turned a corner against Princeton in Beckley with the season hanging in the balance and facing a 2-0 halftime deficit. Tretheway came up with the clincher as the final seconds dwindled and both Engle and Abdul-Jalil agreed that the team has been different since.
“Those kids gutted it out,” Engle said. “They just were not going to let it end down in Beckley in the regionals. I’ve never seen a game in professional, college or certainly not high school that was like that one.”
“It was crazy but it also goes to show the determination the coaches instill in us,” Abdul-Jalil said. “Never give up, 45 seconds away from states. It’s something you can’t even imagine almost.
“People definitely had their doubts about us last year.”
It’s unlikely that anyone is doubting the Patriots now, especially with what GW still has in the fold. In fact, Engle said one of his biggest challenges in year two will be trying not to overthink, overcoach, or micromanage a squad that has proven its championship mettle already.
“The problem with having so many good players is you start tinkering,” Engle said. “ ‘Maybe I’ll try this formation,’ or ‘Hey, we could probably play that formation.’ Sometimes you forget that the simple is really what you need to focus on. We preach it to them all the time, if there’s a complicated pass they can make, there was probably a simple pass. A simple pass is going to be more accurate.
“So when we start messing around with weird formations — 3-1-4-3s — we have to kind of remind ourselves as coaches, ‘You know what, let’s do the simple stuff. Let’s put our best players in the best spots and let them go out and play.’ ”
The Patriots certainly seem ready to get the season started and has a difficult road ahead of them. A highlight will be on Aug. 31 when GW will play against a team from North Columbus, Ohio in the stadium of Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew.
“Great for the kids and I’m excited about coaching on the field, that’s going to be pretty cool,” Engle said.
And whether its in Ohio or in the Mountain State, Abdul-Jalil said his squad is past ready.
“We definitely have some good things going,” Abdul-Jalil said. “We’re ready to go.”