IOWA CITY — It’s raining at Iowa City High and the boys’ soccer team is huddled in the corner of an open room in the press box that also seems to serve as a de facto clubhouse.
There’s a bit of excitement in the air. The state runner-up in Class 3A last year, there’s a lot of hope for this year’s squad.
As one of the players walks in, his compatriots start to rib him a bit. He’s apparently just finished some sort of state competition and finished seventh. Even head coach Jose Michel Fajardo adds a slight laugh. It’s in jest and not pointed, but also offers a small peek at a deeper truth.
At City High, championships are the expectation.
They’re made aware of that expectation every day, in fact. It’s the big “58” painted on the back of the scoreboard that faces the turf field the team plays on. Fifty-eight is the number of state titles City High has won.
And as if they need reminder, there’s a little white post near the entrance to the field that reads “state titles.”
“Coach loves to put pressure on us,” star keeper Sam Tomek said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to not mess up.”
For the most part since Fajardo arrived in 2005, the Little Hawks have been able to win. City High has been to the last five state tournaments, reaching the finals in two of those.
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Last season in particular was incredible, as the team didn’t lose a game until the state title and only surrendered eight goals all season.
“They have seen success, a lot of success, more success than ever in this school,” Fajardo said. “To follow that, to have seen that, that is a good thing.”
One of the biggest parts of their success has been Tomek, who spent 1,644 minutes in goal last year.
In that span, the keeper had to make just 34 saves. Tomek was third in all classes (first, by nearly 200 in 3A) in minutes played. The rest of the top five? Well, they combined for 464 saves.
There’s a reason the first words out of the senior’s mouth when he’s asked about his personal success are about his back line. They kept a lot of the pressure off Tomek and the team captain certainly appreciates their efforts.
It’s indicative of both his personality and the culture Fajardo has been able to build. However, only certainly players fit the mold of team captain.
He has to be able to trust them to make the right calls on the field and to apply the things they’ve been working on in practice to the field. In essence, he wants players that are capable of helping to coach the team while playing themselves.
“Once the referee whistles, it becomes a players’ game,” Fajardo said. “It’s not a coach’s game anymore.”
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Getting back to the championship and winning the first title will be anything but simple. Once again, Class 3A is absolutely loaded. West Des Moines Valley is the preseason No. 1 and beat City High 3-1 in the 2016 state title game.
Iowa City West still is looking for its first title since a three-peat from 2012-14 and comes in at third in the preseason rankings. Cedar Rapids Washington (No. 5) and Linn-Mar (No. 6) are area teams that will threaten as well.
While the Little Hawks don’t have Valley on their regular season-slate, they will play West, Washington and Linn-Mar during the Mississippi Valley Conference schedule. A tough road, but Fajardo feels that early season tests against Cedar Rapids Kennedy and West Des Moines Dowling will help.
Not only is it good competition, it’s also going to be very obvious quickly who will be counted on as a contributor.
“Initially, the pressure is going to be on them, on the players,” Fajardo said. “They have the ability and the talent. There are so many players on this team who are talented.”
If he finds the right combination, that press box might just have to be updated. To be fair though, the wooden post might just come first.
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