A lesser team of character and determination might have folded.
The Cherokee High School boys’ soccer team lost just four games last season while winning 19 with one tie. All four losses, however, were to one team.
The Chiefs, though, didn’t spend the offseason feeling sorry for themselves for running into a true powerhouse in a special season.
No, Cherokee took its lumps and licked its wounds, filling up over the summer with overflowing determination to beat the Minutemen in the season opener.
The Chiefs had to settle for a tie.
Sure, Washington Township was pounded by graduation, losing four All-South Jersey first-team players. But the Minutemen are still the Minutemen.
Cherokee has responded to the disappointing start of not finally beating Washington Township like champions. The Chiefs won their next five games, including 3-2 Monday against Timber Creek.
“Every year is a new year and we all knew who Washington Township lost,” Cherokee coach Glenn Thomsen said. “So it’s really anyones game this year.”
Cherokee is No. 2 in the Courier-Post Mean 15 behind top-ranked Rancocas Valley, Washington Township is No. 3.
“These guys are hungry,” Thomsen added. “They’re all in. They’re going for it.”
Thomsen cited his five senior starters — Eamon McCarren, Mario LaMorte, Zach Rowe, Cristian Ognibene and Justin McCarthy — for fueling the intensity and drive.
“It was incredibly hard to take, especially after the Coaches’ Cup final. That was probably the hardest,” McCarren, the goalie, said about being swept last year. “We had a very talented team. To have a team like we did and for Washington Township to have the team they did, that’s just unheard of. We used it as motivation more than anything else.”
The Chiefs, who finished No. 2 in the final rankings behind the Minutemen, lost the final two meetings in heartbreakers — 3-2 in overtime in the South Jersey Coaches Tournament final in early November and then two days later 2-1 in the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals.
“We have a lot of talented players so there was no doubt we would come back strong,” LaMorte said about rebounding this year.
That is why the opener could’ve been crushing if Cherokee didn’t salvage at least a tie.
“We were definitely disappointed. We wanted to go in there and win, and make a statement,” Ognibene said.
“Our goal was for us to win, and later on this season we are going to give it our best try,” Rowe added.
The Chiefs host the Minutemen on Oct. 15.
“I think we have to stay focused on winning games up until then, but when that week comes we have to be mentally focused in,” McCarthy said.
Indeed, next up for Cherokee is school district rival Lenape on Friday.
•Minutemen still ticking: Cherokee isn’t the only team in South Jersey hoping Washington Township takes a few steps backwards, but the Minutemen won their next three games after drawing with the Chiefs in the season opener.
First, the defending Group 4 state champions beat Cherry Hill West 4-1 as Ethan Mueller scored a pair of goals.
The Minutemen, which won the program’s first state title, then beat Eastern 2-1 on goals from George Charalabidis and Marc Murgo. Last year, the Vikings were the only team to beat Washington Township, which finished with a 23-game winning streak, capped with a 1-0 victory over Scotch Plains-Fanwood.
Murgo scored the game’s lone goal in a win over Lenape.
So although coach Shane Snyder had to replace four first-team All-South Jersey players, including Player of the Year Lou Vilotti, as well as Derek MacKinnon, Burak Ozdemir and Ed McCusker — four players who helped the Minutemen go 77-3 over the last three years — the Minutemen are still winning.
Up next is No. 6 Shawnee on Thursday.
•Timber Creek charging: Timber Creek coach Sean Ortzman wasn’t surprised the Chargers weren’t in the conversation as one of the top teams in the area going into this season.
“We didn’t have a good record last year, so no one would look at us,” Ortzman said.
However, the Chargers won their first two games before losing to No. 6 Shawnee in overtime and No. 2 Cherokee on Monday 3-2, proving they can play with the elite of South Jersey.
“We had a lot of guys coming back,” Ortzman said. “A lot of our young guys got a ton of experience.”
Ortzman called his captains Chris Morales, Mark Seiner, Nicholas DeFeo and Matt Wolfe as critical pieces of the team.
“Last year we didn’t do good,” DeFeo said, “but this year we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
The Chargers fell behind Cherokee 3-0 at halftime, but battled back on goals from Chad Magana and DeFeo to push the Chiefs on their home turf.
“They were a little nervous coming in; Cherokee, a big Group 4 school going against a Group 3,” Ortzman said.
Kevin Callahan; (856) 486-2424; firstname.lastname@example.org