By Kyle LoJacono
Pressure comes with playing for the Wharton boys soccer team.
The Wildcats (2-5-3) have made the playoffs six of the last seven years, and are just five seasons removed from winning the Class 5A state championship.
The burden of maintaining the program’s winning ways falls on a different cast this season.
The Wildcats graduated nine seniors from last year’s squad that went 18-5-1 and reached the regional semifinals, including their top-three scorers in Felipe DeSousa (28 goals, 14 assists), Ize Cadet (11 goals, seven assists) and Alex Noble (seven goals, eight assists).
Wharton also lost Jordan Lue, who was a starting defensive midfielder as a freshman and sophomore, but made an academy squad in Clearwater. New rules prevent student-athletes from competing with such elite-level clubs and in high school.
In total, 12 players are gone from last season, the most turnover ever for seventh-year Wildcats coach Scott Ware. Only nine players on the current roster return from 2011-12.
“We’ve only got 19 on the roster, and that’s the smallest since I’ve been here,” Ware said. “Three of those are goalkeepers, so we’ve only got 16 field players.”
Junior midfielder Philippe Patino, who has been on the squad since his freshman year, said it was strange playing with so many new people the first few weeks.
“If you have a team where you lose a lot of seniors, it’s hard to just come right back and fill those spots,” Patino said. “I think we’ve done pretty well considering what we’ve lost. We’ve still got some spots to work on, but we’ve got a lot of potential on the team.”
Ware wouldn’t come near calling the season a rebuilding year, despite the massive turnover.
“We don’t put that tag on it because if you do it seems like you’re comfortable with just an average season; I’m not,” Ware said. “We’re Wharton, and we’ve got a tradition to uphold in the county. If you talk to coaches or writers who talk about the top five, we want to always be in that top five.
“From the beginning of the season when we have that first tryout meeting, I talk about what Wharton soccer means,” Ware continued. “We tell all the players when you put Wharton across your chest it means something because of the legacy past teams have left behind. I’ve talked to the captains who have been here for awhile, and I ask them what are they going to leave behind. It’s a class team, a class program, and when they realize it, they buy into it.”
Still, replacing 12 players is not an easy task, even for the Wildcats.
“We’re just trying to get some type of style and get to know each other out there,” Ware said. “Who can do what and in different situations who can we count on. They’re all in different age groups in club. They have to learn to read each other and off-the-ball movement. The question is, can we find some style and shape that works well?”
The process is made even more difficult by the fact that Hillsborough County squads do not have junior varsity (JV) programs.
“Not having the JV programs in Hillsborough County, we’re feeling it now,” Ware said. “Pasco County has it, other counties have JV, and some private schools have it. Some of the kids I count on now, they didn’t make it last year or two years ago. I’ve got three freshmen, a couple who came from out of state, so most of these kids I don’t know, and it’s tough when you don’t have a JV team to pull from and teach the kids and learn about them while they’re younger.”
Senior goalkeeper Keenan Kushner (31 saves) said he’s tried to take on more of a leadership role with fellow team captains Lamont DeLorey and Patino, to help the new players transition.
“Everybody is new, and everyone is nervous when they first come out,” Kushner said. “I know I was. The only thing is the intensity isn’t as high as last year, when we had all those seniors. Me, Lamont and Patino are trying to bring that passion to practice and the drive to do well. That’s what Wharton has been known for.”
Wharton was most hit on offense, which is why Ware has focused on developing the defense.
“We’re trying to keep it to one- and two-goal games, which we’ve done,” Ware said. “The defense has really been stellar.”
DeLorey is the only returning player on the backline.
“I’ve tried to take control and get the rest of the defense to press,” DeLorey said. “Last year it was different. The older guys had a mindset of what to do, and they were there before me, so they didn’t really need me to help them. I just played, so it’s a little different. … We’re starting to gel all over the field. We’re getting there slowly but surely.”
The Wildcats also return a huge part of its goal prevention in Kushner, a four-year varsity starter.
“Keenan, he’s a big deal for us,” DeLorey said. “Having him is the most help ever. He’s a really good goalkeeper; one of the best. He can stop anything.”
Wharton’s offense has been led by Patino and his team-high nine points (three goals, three assists). He said he learned a lot from watching guys like DeSousa, Cadet and Noble.
“The way they practice, and I also took the way they played every day,” Patino said. “I try and do the same thing and treat every day like it’s important. It’s tough expectations to meet. There’s this bar that’s way up high that we have to reach every year.”
Wharton will compete in the Class 5A-District 7 tournament at Riverview Jan. 21 to 26.
The Wildcats hosts district rival Alonso Dec. 18 before playing at home against Gaither Dec. 20. Both contests start at 8 p.m.
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