116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WEST LIBERTY — This had the makings of a special season for the West Liberty boys' soccer team.
'It occurred to me when we were playing Regina that everybody who was going to start and was likely to play was from (Iowa City) Kickers or the West Liberty soccer club,' Comets Coach Mike Gunn said.
'Anywhere between six and eight years I've been watching them play soccer. Which is the first time that's ever happened. Usually I've got a foreign exchange student, a couple immigrants from Mexico, someone from Central America. But this year it's like all the hometown kids.'
Principal James Hamilton said Gunn's leadership in helping build the club program has been key.
'Creating that relationship with the families and having that connection and that trust in building the ranks (creates) most successful programs,' Hamilton said.
Cohesive, talented and committed to each other, they had the makings of a state tournament team.
'We've just played better as a team this year,' junior Joe Baker said. 'Last year we had a lot of really good players, but they didn't necessarily know how to play with each other. That's changed big time for this year.'
'The sophomore class is really strong, and there's usually four of five sophomores on the field,' Gunn said.
Gunn knew the first part of the season would be a challenge with players missing because of injury and eligibility issues.
While the community has long coalesced around respect for its cultural diversity, the sometimes mobile, transient population with different priorities is a fact of life at West Liberty.
'So many things get in the way of playing,' Gunn said. 'Grades. Suspensions. Injuries. I don't know, I never make the starting lineup until I get to the field.
'I have to be (flexible). You know the first year we went to state (2012) it wasn't until the practice before we got on the bus to play the first game that I actually had a whole starting lineup at the same practice. I spent the season walking around individually telling them what they missed. That's the nature of our kids, so if you can't deal with that you don't belong here.'
In April, the Comets adjusted their style.
'We played very defensively,' Gunn said.
The defense, anchored by experienced center backs Baker and Joe Kelly, and reinforced by the return of Eliseo Tapia from a broken collarbone, has been stout.
'Our team chemistry is pretty good. We're all pretty fast and we have a really good offense to work against in practice,' Baker said. 'At the beginning of the season our defense was really important because not everyone could play yet.'
Gunn knew when the missing players returned the team could realize its potential. In May, the Comets (11-6) won nine of 10 games, scoring 45 goals in the process.
'Mostly I had midfielders again,' Gunn cracked.
'We were talking more, communicating,' Tapia said.
'The midfielders were playing defense, too,' Baker added. 'That plays a big role.'
But May is over and the Comets have to adjust again as they head to state to play defending champion Dyersville Beckman (19-0) Thursday. At least two starters will be ineligible and Gunn will shuffle positions and alignments. Defense will be key.
'We have to stay focused and believe we can beat them,' Tapia said.
'It's a state championship right off the bat,' Baker said. 'If they were on the other side of the bracket we'd like to think we'd be meeting them then. We have to go into it with that mentality and be ready.'
Challenges are nothing new for the Comets.