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Area soccer: Minnewaska Lakers are handling things well

Read how Minnewaska boys soccer is on an upswing

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Minnewaska's Ethan Quelle puts a move on a defender during Tuesday's Granite Ridge Conference match against St. Cloud Cathedral from the Whitney Sports Complex in St. Cloud. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

GLENWOOD — The third week of the 2020 season left a lot to be desired for the Minnewaska boys soccer team.

Facing undefeated St. Cloud Cathedral on the road, the Lakers had a number of defensive breakdowns and were shut out 5-0 on Tuesday. Two days later at Little Falls, Minnewaska suffered its second straight Granite Ridge Conference loss, a 4-1 defeat.

Many teams may crumble after a week like that, but this group of the Laker players are carrying themselves with more confidence than they may have in the past.

“I feel like we would’ve handled it differently because before we weren’t really the greatest and we were kind of used to losing,” senior center midfielder Connor Nestor said. “But this year, since we have a really good chance of winning the conference and maybe going on to state, it’s much different.”

In his 25th season as Minnewaska head coach, Ted Hill added: “They know that the bar is set pretty high and they’ve actually set that bar. They want to be successful.”

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Confidence is one thing. However, it isn’t simply the team’s mindset that has the players believing.

Minnewaska opened the season victorious in its first three matches. The team enjoyed a 2-0 win over Melrose in the home opener on Sept. 1 before capturing another shutout, this time 1-0, at Zimmerman on Sept. 8. Returning home to face St. John’s Prep on Sept. 10, the Lakers controlled possession and play on the pitch en route to a 3-1 victory.

Even with the losses to the Crusaders and Flyers, Minnewaska is off to its best start through five games since 2008.

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Minnewaska's Ike Koenig kicks the ball to an open teammate during Tuesday's Granite Ridge Conference match against St. Cloud Cathedral from the Whitney Sports Complex in St. Cloud. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

“This year, we seem like we’re more of a team,” junior midfielder Ike Koenig said. “We seem more connected and we seem like we’re trying to have more fun because we’re lucky that we have a season.”

Rebuild and train

The Lakers are coming off a 7-6-1 record in 2019 and are in search of back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than a decade.

This would be a major accomplishment considering that six years ago, boys soccer didn’t exist at Minnewaska. The program was cut by the school in 2012 and did not return until 2015.

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As for now, Hill says the program is in solid shape.

“I think for a small school like ours, our program is very healthy,” Hill said. “We recruit a lot of players that aren’t out for any other sports, so a lot of our athletes are one-sport athletes. I’d like to get multiple-sport athletes if I can, but I’m always looking for kids that aren’t involved in other programs. We can do them some good and they can do us some good.”

Nestor played soccer when he was a child, but he spent his falls as a middle schooler in football pads and a helmet, although he wasn’t a big football fan. That’s when Hill offered him a different option.

“Coach Hill just reached out to me one day and told me to join,” Nestor said. “So I went to practice one day and immediately I knew I was going to love it.”

Once the players get on the pitch, Minnewaska employs the Dutch training method. Prior to working on drills and going over tactics, players get in 500 touches with the ball. Additionally, instead of practicing 11-on-11 where a player may be limited in his time with the ball, Hill has players practice in 4-on-4s or 5-on-5s.

“We use a very European style of training our players,” Hill said. “We see really quick progression out of our players because of that.”

That method is particularly valuable this season after players and coaches had their time together slashed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hill was unable to work with his players until July 15.

Before then, players trained independently and played in pickup games with one another.

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“To our advantage, we’re a small family-like group and as a result of that, my kids were able to (get their touches),” Hill said. “I think our biggest challenge is fitness rather than being good on a ball.”

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Minnewaska's Blake Nelson chases after the ball during Tuesday's Granite Ridge Conference match against St. Cloud Cathedral from the Whitney Sports Complex in St. Cloud. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

‘Blue-collar team’

The core of Minnewaska’s squad revolves around five players.

Koenig, the team’s leading scorer last season and so far this year, is an offensive midfielder. Nestor and his twin brother, Tanner Nestor, are holding midfielders and play an integral part of the defense.

Leading the backline is senior defender Josh Curry. Hill describes Curry as “a center back who plays with aggressiveness and physical toughness.”

Junior forward Ethan Quelle was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer last season. He missed the first two games of the season with a minor injury, but has scored two goals since returning to the lineup.

“Those five guys are the guys that we look to especially when we’re under pressure and we look to when things maybe aren’t going as well on the field as they should,” Hill remarked.

An added element of their roles is communication.

There aren’t many sports that a team can perform without being on the same page. This is particularly true in soccer, where players alert others on defensive positioning or when to go on runs. Koenig sees the value of being vocal for another reason.

“I feel like I have a big role in communicating and encouraging people to try and keep a positive (attitude),” Koenig said. “So that when they hang their head, I always try to lift their head up.

“I’m technically not a captain, but I try to be a leader and try to help people when I see that there’s a problem.”

Meanwhile, Connor Nestor has a different, yet effective way to lead.

“I don’t seem like the nicest guy on the field,” he said. “During practice, I try to teach them how to play the game. Once it’s game time, I’m practically screaming at them the whole time, but I don’t try to make it too personal.”

Ultimately, if the players are trying to uplift one another or use more of a tough-love approach, this Lakers group gels together.

“These kids really like each other, and as a result, they play for each other,” Hill said. “The other thing I really like out of them, and I’ve liked this out of all of my teams the last 25 years, is they really don’t have a lot of quit in them. If things don’t go their way, they keep grinding away. ... I think I would describe them as a blue-collar team.”

Minnewaska next plays at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Melrose in the rematch of their season-opener. The Lakers are then host to Zimmerman at 5 p.m. Thursday as the teams go through the second half of the Granite Ridge schedule.

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Minnewaska's Ike Koenig kicks the ball to an open teammate during Tuesday's Granite Ridge Conference match against St. Cloud Cathedral from the Whitney Sports Complex in St. Cloud. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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