Columbia boys soccer coach Jason Mathenia wasn’t playing possum in the preseason.
Mathenia had concerns about the Eagles, who graduated 14 seniors from a team that finished 22-2-1 after being upset by Marquette in the Class 2A sectional semifinals.
Those concerns have been put to rest one month into the season. Columbia is rolling at 7-0-1, the only blemish being a scoreless tie against much-improved Highland.
The Eagles are doing it with defense. They have yet to allow a goal.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“We’re doing OK,” said Mathenia, in his fourth season. “We’re playing very good as a team right now. I would say that’s been the biggest plus to our side right now — our team play as opposed to individual play.
“I definitely wasn’t sure (in the preseason) we would be where we’re at. There’s no doubt about that. But once we had our first game, we adjusted a couple of things from there and we continued to grow and mature very quickly as a team.”
The Eagles, who won the Class 1A state championship in 2014, returned two starters in junior goalkeeper Jon Kuebler and junior attacking midfielder Sam Spivey, who played center back last season. Neither has disappointed.
Kuebler has 24 saves in addition to be unscored upon. Spivey has four goals and four assists and scored the Eagles’ only goal in their 1-0 win over Gibault on Tuesday.
“We’re preaching to our team, the Belleville West girls or the Columbia boys, it’s always defense first,” said Mathenia, who coaches at West in the spring. “We’ve taken the motto of, ‘If you don’t give up goals, you can’t lose a game.’ That’s what our stance is this year. We’re going to deny as many opportunities as we can with a solid defensive line and expect Jon Kuebler to do his job between the pipes whenever he’s called upon, and he’s done that.
“Against Highland and Gibault in our last couple of games, he’s made some unbelievable saves when he’s had to make them. Just remarkable saves. It’s not too often that he has to get tested, but when he has been tested, he’s kept them out of the net, for sure.”
Besides Spivey, other offensive contributors have included sophomore Riley Hubler (eight goals, two assists), seniors Connor Jackson (six goals, three assists), Liam McGonigle (four goals, one assist) and Noah Jorns (three goals, three assists), and juniors Jake Bridges (five goals, six assists) and Breenen vanBruesegen (two goals, four assists).
“We’re spreading the wealth,” Mathenia said. “We don’t want to be a team that relies on one guy. It’s so much easier to defend that against your next-level opponents when all they have to do is mark one guy. We get as many bodies as we can involved offensively and hope for the best. The same holds true with having a vulnerable defense. If you have a solid line back there and a solid goalkeeper, you’ve got a chance against anybody, without a doubt.”
The defense in front of Kuebler has been staunchly anchored by seniors David Hawickhorst, Cole Bivens and Connor Pelt, and sophomore Charlie Harres.
Columbia, which was scheduled to play Thursday at Valmeyer, will participate in the 62nd annual CYC/Bob Guelker Tournament next week. The Eagles won the tournament’s Msgr. Larry Walsh Division last year with a 3-2 victory over Ladue as Sean Rickey scored a late penalty kick. Ladue is 10-0 this season and could get a rematch with Columbia in the finals Sept. 24.
“We did well last year in that (tournament),” said Mathenia, whose team will play Missouri foes Trinity, Farmington and Clayton in pool play. “I’ve always enjoyed playing different teams. In the CYC, we’ve had some success. Our intentions are to go in there open-minded, compete and do the best we can.”
Others in CYC
Metro-east teams joining Columbia in the Msgr. Larry Walsh Division of the CYC/Bob Guelker Tournament, whose finals will be at World Wide Technology Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo., are Belleville West, Triad and Marquette. Triad and Marquette are in the same pool.
O’Fallon and Waterloo will compete in the Msgr. Louis Meyer Division. Mascoutah and Alton are in the Msgr. Lloyd Sullivan Division.
Teams will receive four points for a win, two points for a tie and one additional point for a shutout. The top four teams in each division will advance to the semifinals Sept. 23. The championship games in each division will be Sept. 24.
Bulldogs bounce back
After finishing 7-16 last season, the Highland Bulldogs have regrouped.
Highland, an experienced team with 12 seniors, took a 5-3-1 record into its scheduled Mississippi Valley Conference home game Thursday against Mascoutah. In addition to tying Columbia, the Bulldogs own victories over Triad and Collinsville.
“A big part of our success is we were able to get some tournaments in this summer,” seventh-year Bulldogs coach Josh Oswald said. “We went to Iowa and got five games in and on top of that, we only had three seniors last season, one of which started. The majority of these guys have been playing since they were sophomores.
“Having 12 seniors this year is new for us. The biggest senior class we’ve had has been eight, and that was my first year seven years ago. Since then, our biggest (senior) class outside of that has been five. Experience and game knowledge have helped more than anything.”
Evan Herman (five goals, two assists), a junior forward, and senior forward Brent Rapien (five goals, one assists) have sparked the offense. Five other players have scored goals.
Senior Lucas Ammann and junior Andrew Roach scored Highland’s goals in its 2-1 victory over Collinsville, which figures to be among the best teams in the metro-east by the postseason.
Top defenders for the Bulldogs are senior Brett Korte and juniors Blake Hagler and Drake Gehrs.
BND Boys Soccer Rankings
Rankings for metro-east teams; voting by area coaches and News-Democrat staff. First-place votes are in parentheses.
Also receiving votes: Alton (6-2), Triad (6-4), Althoff (5-3), Belleville West (2-6-1), Gibault (5-5-1), Highland (5-3-1), Mascoutah (5-3).