SYRACUSE – You can’t blame Wawasee senior Chris Pena for diverting attention.
The soft-spoken speedster for the Warrior boys soccer program didn’t take well to being double, and sometimes, triple teamed on the soccer pitch a season ago. When asked about it, Pena wasn’t super keen on thinking about it any more than he has to.
“I’ve tried to push the attention teams gave to me to the side, but I have thought about it a little,” Pena said. “It’s not all about me, I want my teammates involved as much as possible. I do whatever I can to avoid the negativity. I’m trying to get my team involved as much as I can. If teams want to double or triple team me, so be it. That just means two of my teammates are going to be open somewhere.”
Pena, who stands not much more than 5-7 with his cleats on, is hard to target. His superior breakaway speed fits almost perfectly with the artificial playing surface at Warrior Field, which gave teams fits both in gauging pace of play and trying to defend. What would amount in most cases as a 10-yard pass on grass can be a 40-yard chaser on the new turf at Wawasee, and Pena loves the challenge of the chase. So did his Wawasee teammates, who continually took advantage of the scenarios to feed Pena.
Pena’s 18 goals scored a season ago will draw more attention than he already had as a sophomore What will change is the ability to adapt as constructed a season ago. With giant targets in the middle in Ryan Edington, Blayne Faught and Eric Yankosky flying in on crosses and set pieces, teams had to take their chances with the six-foot-plus targets while Pena often hung out near the top of the 18 and collected the scraps. Those three are all graduated.
“We don’t really have a lot of height, most of our guys are all about the same this year,” Pena said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a process creating shots when last year we had those bigger targets. We have to play more control, more possession and work with what we have. That’s all we really can do.
“This season we really are focused on the sectionals and finishing it off,” continued Pena. “The last two seasons we were so close and we choked. We’re just trying to bring it home. That’s our motivation, we are tired of being close and not bringing it home.”
The tall timber that graduated, along with classmate Camden Cox, combined for 23 of the team’s 48 goals. With Pena’s tally off the top, Wawasee potted just seven other goals. Head coach Jordan Sharp understands the dilemma.
“We’ll miss the seniors that left, as we always do, but we have some excitement in this program and we can’t wait to see what they can do,” Sharp said.
Both Pena and Sharp noted right away of the preseason play of senior Jared Pritchard, sophomore Ethan Carey and the network of senior keeper Dillon Drake.
Drake greatly approved as the season went along, including a pair of shutouts in the sectional against Lakeland and NorthWood. Neither Pritchard or Carey (three goals) lit up the nets, but Sharp added both of those guys have made huge strides in play.
Where Wawasee elevated its play in non-conference matches, pulling off upsets of area powers Westview and West Noble, along with two wins in the sectional before a loss to Garrett in the final, the team struggled mightily in conference. Wawasee was 7-1-3 out of conference (including three sectional games). An 0-7 finish in the Northern Lakes Conference, however, was a sore spot for the club last season, and with the conference already having Goshen, Warsaw and Concord ranked in the preseason state polls, life won’t be easy again. Sharp and his boys are out to fix that.
“Our conference is tough, and we’ve really got to be on our game every night in the NLC,” Sharp said. “We have some talent, but some of those schools are loaded. We have to step it up and bring it to them, make them uncomfortable. That run in the NLC should help us in the postseason. Our sectional has teams that are beatable. We proved it last year getting to the final, and I know the guys were disappointed not making it to regional. They remember that. We feel it’s our time to make a move.”
Wawasee begins its march at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Westview.