David Haag never remembers suggesting a position switch to Justin Kraus.
“I suggested that?” the Winnebago Lutheran boys soccer coach wondered, incredulous. Kraus definitely remembers it that way. Haag isn’t so sure. To be fair, it happened three years ago, so fuzzy memories on both ends is understandable.
However it transpired, the transition from midfield to sweeper was a crucial moment in Kraus’ prep soccer career. And now, with Kraus in the midst of his senior season on the Winnebago Lutheran boys soccer team, it’s apparent it was a good decision.
Kraus is coming off a junior season in which he was named to the All-Flyway Conference first team as a defender and, in Haag’s opinion, was the best defensive player in the league. Midway through his senior campaign, he’s headed up a Vikings defense that’s allowed only seven goals through 14 games. This from a player who primarily played on offense until he entered high school.
“In grade school, I actually played center mid(fielder) and JV year (as a freshman) they stuck me at sweeper. I kind of asked the coach why and he said that Pastor Haag had to talked to him and said that’s where he’d like me to play if I was all right with that,” Kraus said. “That’s where I’d see the most time and have the best chance to get on varsity my sophomore year. That’s what I chose because he obviously saw something in me.”
Like the best players in many sports, Kraus focuses much of his attention on the mental side of the game — knowing when to attack, where to be, how long to wait — a tactic that keeps him ahead of the opposition and allows him to be the player he is. Of course, the physical skills are there as well, but his mental preparedness sets him apart.
“He’s very skilled in all the areas of soccer — handling the ball, passing the ball,” Haag said. “Because of his experience now with three years on varsity and playing a lot outside of the WLA soccer season as well — he just plays a lot of soccer, he knows what it should look like. He knows where his defensive partners need to be and the goalie because the last two years, especially last year, we had an inexperienced goalie. Even in the midfield and the forwards — he knows where everyone should be. He knows how to help direct people. He knows how to cover.”
Obviously Kraus has improved since his sophomore season, which saw him start at sweeper as a first-year varsity player. As the last line of defense before the goalie, Kraus felt the pressure from the get-go but most observers thought he held his own from the start, even if he thought there were a few rough stretches.
“I was told I was a natural, but I thought I had a bit of a bumpy stretch to start. But it wasn’t too bad of an adjustment,” Kraus said. “When you’re the last defender, there’s no room for error. If you screw up, it usually leads to one-on-one with the goalie. I couldn’t just play 100 percent all the time, sometimes I’d have to wait for that bad touch instead of pressuring right away.”
Added Haag: “He held his own very well as a sophomore and with the ability to handle the ball. Defense in soccer is maybe like being a linebacker in football where you kind of read the flow of the play. So often, I look up and you’re watching the ball and you’re watching the play of the ball and then it comes to our defensive end and Justin is exactly where you want him to be.”
Along with his position as the defensive leader, Kraus takes many of the free kicks for the Vikings because of his ability to place the ball with precision — showcasing some of the offensive skill he has. As a result, despite playing a position that’s usually nowhere near the opposing goal much of the game, Kraus has a few assists to his name in 2015.
When playing tough competition, which Winnebago Lutheran does both within the Flyway and out of conference, having an asset like Kraus on free kicks is indispensable.
“It’s extremely important because it’s one of those times where you can put the ball in the dangerous area, in the scoring area, and get an opportunity to score,” Haag said. “Any time you can play it off a corner kick or direct kick and put it in the dangerous area and create a scramble situation, misdirect the defense, get the goalie moving one way and all of a sudden, the ball gets flicked another way — you give yourself a scoring chance. Justin is consistently giving us that.”
At the moment, Kraus isn’t sure about his soccer career past high school, but is considering playing at the Division III level next year. Milwaukee School of Engineering, UW-Oshkosh and Concordia University are possible destinations, though he made it clear that academics would come first.
But that’s a long way off and there’s unfinished business for Kraus and the Vikings in 2015. Last year, Winnebago Lutheran lost in heartbreaking fashion to Sturgeon Bay in the WIAA Division 4 sectional final, falling in penalty kicks after tying 1-1 through regulation and overtime. While the Vikings have the goal of winning conference and advancing to state every season, Kraus specifically pointed out that he and the team hope for another shot at Sturgeon Bay.
If Winnebago Lutheran does manage to get payback on the Clippers, you can bet neither Kraus nor Haag will misremember that in a few years’ time.
“It would mean everything to us (to get to state),” Kraus said. “I go back and read the article sometimes before I got to practice just to give me that motivation to make myself better so that if we get there, maybe they won’t get that one goal and we’ll win 1-0 instead of (tying) 1-1 and having to go to PKs (penalty kicks). It definitely motivates us to want to come back and be better this year.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL