As the Peninsula High boys soccer team ran around the Roy Anderson Field turf last week during a preseason workout, the smiles the players wore beamed as brightly as the late-winter sun overhead.
There are good reasons for the Seahawks to smile after the program reached the Class 3A state playoffs last season for the first time since 2006.
For defenders Sam Shea and Matt Myers, both of whom are entering their fourth season on the squad, some things have changed, and some things haven’t.
“It always feels like we’ve gotten a lot of new faces and a younger team every year,” Myers said. “But we’re ready to work. This team loves to work hard, loves to compete, and we’re ready to take that to the games.”
“It’s similar to my freshman year when we had a lot of freshmen,” Shea said, “but we built the program up. So this will be a test to see where our program is at, because it’s the best it’s been in a while.”
Peninsula has its share of challenges as it attempts to build on last year’s 14-win campaign and second-place finish in the South Puget Sound League.
The challenges start with replacing leading scorer Cole Madden and all-state goalkeeper Jason Bauknecht. They also include responding to a new coach, as Brian Lawson took over the reins from Terry Stebner just six weeks ago.
Lawson, a former keeper at the University of Puget Sound, has assisted at Pacific Lutheran University and Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma. He’s a first-time head coach at the high-school level, and while he’s still getting to know his players, he’s not afraid to test their limits.
Lawson has the Seahawks learning a new formation — a 4-2-3-1 in which two holding midfielders help the back line and one forward plays in front of the other, rather than side by side.
“They’ve asked, ‘Why do you want to play that?’ ” Lawson said. “And I’ve told these boys, ‘What are other teams training against right now?’ They’re training against the 4-4-2, because they expect to see a 4-4-2 in high-school soccer.”
Two experienced players will fill the key attacking roles, with senior Donovan Hobson at central forward and junior Noah Hanks at withdrawn forward.
Shea thinks Hanks is poised for a breakthrough season.
“Noah went through what I went through with an undeveloped body, but he’s grown into it now, and I’m excited for him,” Shea said. “He’s going to be getting goals.”
Hobson worked closely last season with Madden, who’s now playing at Highline Community College in Des Moines.
“I think Donovan’s natural finishing ability is going to be good for us up top,” Lawson said. “He’s very quick, he has quick touches on the ball, and he can cause defenders fits with his ability to dribble and make those finishes for us.”
In the new formation, Peninsula’s outside midfielders will need to join the attack more often. It’s a largely unproven group, with only senior Nate Jackson having significant varsity time. The Seahawks will look to newcomers like Casey Brooks, David Rodriguez, Ryan Valley and Joaquin Gutierrez to step up.
Peninsula’s strength is in the back four, specifically at central defense, where Shea and Myers form a virtual brick wall.
“You couldn’t ask for two better athletes,” Lawson said. “They’re everything you could really ask for in central backs.”
Sophomore Ryan Campbell returns to play left back, and junior Alex Miller steps into a varsity role for the first time at right back.
The keeper position isn’t settled. Senior Brandon Whitehead has plenty of experience, but he can’t play until his transfer from South Kitsap is approved. Freshman Ethan Martin, who plays select soccer at Harbor Premier, also looks capable, Lawson said.
The players are trying not to judge success in 2013 based on the results of 2012.
“Last year was last year, and this year is this year,” Myers said. “We know that. We just want to do the best we can do.”
“We’re even hungrier now ... and we’ve really just set in what hard work is for this program, so everyone knows the standards,” Shea added.Sports Editor Neil Pierson can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_neil.