Three years ago when Leroy Sanchez was entering his second season as assistant coach of the Woodburn boys soccer team, the Bulldogs were in a hard place. The team had graduated 10 seniors from its 2013 state semifinalist team, the bulk of which were starters.
Gone was 2012 5A Player of the Year Michael Hobson. As were 2013 Conference Player of the Year Jesse Martin, Andrew Almanzar, Christian Andrade and a host of all-conference talent that had made the Bulldogs the No. 1 team entering the 2013 playoffs.
Sanchez thinks back to that season as he enters his first year at the helm of the program he once played for. This year's team enters the season in a similar situation, with 11 seniors graduated, most of whom played the majority of the minutes in last year's 2016 state championship team.
With most programs, graduating an entire class of star players is grounds for a rebuilding year or two. But then again, Woodburn is not like most programs.
"We had that second year where we were losing seven or eight (starters), it was kind of the same turnover and we ended up making it to the (2014) state championship," Sanchez said. "We have a good feeling about this season and we're hoping to bring another one home."
The Bulldogs ultimately lost the 2014 state title game, but the experience forged in the crucible of defeat helped propel that class of players to the 2016 championship. Sanchez thinks this year's team can put itself in just such a position again, and even succeed where the 2014 team fell short.
"I don't think it's too farfetched," Sanchez said. "I'm looking to become kind of a family out here. If we can play like that, play as brothers and play hard, I don't think a state championship is unreachable. It's very possible."
Sanchez's positivity stems from a system that has yielded year after year of strong seasons and stronger players who come up through the junior varsity system ready to play at an elite level. Half of this year's roster is a junior class who was a part of last year's championship team. The other half played under assistant coach Sean Monoghan at the JV level, going undefeated while giving up less than five goals in 2016.
"They played that same system with Sean at JV last year, so these guys coming up already know the game model and what we're expecting," Sanchez said.
Still, it will be a difficult journey to climb that championship mountain once again, a journey made that much more difficult after the loss of their only returning starter, Edwin Silva, to injury. Silva was slated to move up to midfield after anchoring the left side of the defense last year, but a preseason ankle injury could keep him out of most, if not all, of this year's schedule.
"We might not see Edwin on the field, which is devastating because of his experience," Sanchez said. "He was there the whole way last year, so we would have to really adjust. It's definitely a tough loss."
In his place, the Bulldogs feature David Lopez and Trevor Karsseboom in midfield, both juniors looking to carve out new roles after serving as reserves a year ago.
A three-sport athlete, Karsseboom is coming off a successful sophomore year where he saw continued postseason experience with the basketball and tennis teams.
"He has a vision for the game, and I think that also comes from his basketball background," Sanchez said. "You need that type of vision on the field, so we're hoping Trevor can bring that vision, raw talent and athleticism."
At the front of the offense will be junior Jesus Rodriguez and the team's lone senior, Inocencio Lopez, who have the difficult task of replacing all-state forwards Anthony Santillan and 5A Player of the Year Reggie Reyes.
Both have seen playing time in reserve roles, particularly Rodriguez, who was the team's top offensive reserve. Now that Rodriguez and Lopez have an expanded role, Sanchez hopes to see them blossom not just as a goal-scorers, but as a multi-tooled threats from either side of the field.
"Both of our wingers we'll have high expectations for," Sanchez said. "Especially with goal scoring, playmaking and getting assists up there."
On defense, reserves Riley Menezes and Pedro Hernandez will take on starting positions in the back, pairing with junior goalkeeper Jose Ochoa, who split time as the team's keeper in non-conference games last season.
While Ochoa has the team's starting job, Sanchez will likely pair him with promising sophomore Isaac Pureco, continuing the tradition of keeping and playing multiple goalies on the roster. Even JV junior reserve Luis Hernandez has the potential to earn some varsity minutes this season if something should happen to Ochoa or Pureco
"We haven't had the depth at goalkeeper that we do this year," Sanchez said. "We're excited to have a few more goalkeepers."
With Woodburn likely playing its final year at the 5A level before moving down a classification, the Bulldogs want to go out on top and will begin their title defense at home on Aug. 29 against the Beaverton Beavers. Prior to that, Woodburn will gets its first playing time at its annual home jamboree on Thursday at 10 a.m. at Woodburn High School.
"I think we're going to have a great season," Sanchez said. "I'm hopeful that we're going to have a similar season to last year and get far in the playoffs and get a state championship again."
Woodburn Boys Soccer
Coach: Leroy Sanchez
2016: 15-1-2, 7-0 Mid-Willamette Conference, 5A State Champions
Key losses: Reggie Reyes, F (5A Player of the Year); Anthony Santillan, F (1st Team All-State); Andy Ellingson, M (1st Team All-State); Eddie Cabrera, GK (1st Team All-State); Conner Karsseboom, D (2nd Team All-State)
Key returners: Edwin Silva, M, Jr.; Jesus Rodriguez, F, Jr.; Trevor Karsseboom, M, Jr.; Jose Ochoa, GK, Jr.