Green Bay East boys soccer coach Mike Bootz was expecting good things to happen when he took over the program five years ago.
But even he didn’t dream big enough.
“These kids have exceeded my expectations, I can’t lie to you,” Bootz said. “You dream it, but you go to sleep and you try to go, ‘OK. Let’s be realistic. Let’s be practical.’
“The school, the students, have exceeded what I ever dreamed it could be.”
Bootz didn’t want to build a program that hoped for a winning season once every four years. He wanted sustained success, which might be possible at other schools but can be more difficult with the challenges of a place like East.
He’s heard Green Bay Preble coach Chris Becker talk every year about how his Hornets don’t rebuild but simply reload.
The Red Devils finally might be doing the same thing as they start their first season as a member of the Bay Conference after competing in the Fox River Classic since 2007.
They reached a WIAA sectional semifinal in 2013. They followed by making it to a sectional championship match last season after also earning a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history.
East lost its best two players to graduation in forward Miguel Vergara-Haro and defender Emmanuel Sanchez, who was the FRCC’s defensive player of the year.
That would have been game over for East in the past. Now, the Red Devils have players ready and able to step in and replace the lost firepower.
Those players include three of the team’s top four scorers from last season, highlighted by senior midfielder Jorge Garcia, junior forward Kevin Avila and senior defender Leobardo Villa.
Garcia arguably is the best player at his position in the Bay, while Villa is a first-team conference talent. Then there is Avila, who is able to do things with the ball that sometimes is only seen on YouTube videos.
They are three of 71 players who went out for soccer at East this season, a number that represents an all-time high for Bootz.
The Red Devils, however, still are a work in progress when it comes to developing the confidence that they can compete with any team on any stage.
East started out slowly in its sectional final loss to Cedarburg last season, which in part might have been attributed to the nerves it felt going in. Sanchez pointed out afterward that the bus ride to the field was mostly silent instead of the usual jovialness.
The Red Devils jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the second half of their first game this season against a Preble team considered one of the best in the state, only for some of the players to perhaps get a bit uptight when they realized they were close to pulling off the upset.
They settled for a tie instead.
“I think they are going to be the favorite in the Bay Conference,” Becker said. “Just because they lost (Vergara-Haro and Sanchez) doesn’t mean their talent around them wasn’t phenomenal as well.”
Becker called Villa a “stud” and the combination of Garcia and Avila “ridiculous” when it comes to dribbling and controlling the ball.
Preble is one of several tough nonconference opponents East will play this season, which was by design. That list includes a loss on Saturday to Muskego, which is ranked No. 5 in Division 1.
Win or lose, those are the types of matches Bootz expects will help his team reach its goal of going to state for the first time since 1990.
That goal no longer has to be a fantasy.
“The best way to prepare this team is to play the best schools,” Bootz said. “That’s the challenge. … we wanted a solid strength of schedule to push us.
“We want to get to Milwaukee.”
5 area players to watch
Ryan Hansen, sr., Pulaski: A first-team pick in the Fox River Classic Conference last season and the league’s offensive player of the year. A big reason the Red Raiders made it to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament. A Best of the Rest all-state selection by the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association. Topped 30 goals and 20 assists.
Levi Haight, sr., Sturgeon Bay: The offensive player of the year in the Packerland Conference last season. Led the Clippers to the Division 4 state tournament.
Evan Watzka, sr., Green Bay Notre Dame: A first-team choice in the FRCC and a Best of the Rest all-state pick as a junior.
Paolo Lassila, sr., Seymour: A first-team pick in the Bay Conference in 2014. Scored two or more goals in six matches and had a hat trick against Menasha.
Dane Steger, jr., De Pere: Allowed 1.20 goals per game and had an 86.9 save percentage as a sophomore. A first-team pick in the FRCC.