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West Fargo's Zuheer Al Abase (22) collides with Fargo North's Matt Simmer on Thursday. David Samson / Forum Communications Co.

Packers deep and digging in

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When the West Fargo boys soccer team won the state tournament last year, they did so as underdogs; upsetting undefeated Fargo Shanley in the semifinals 3-2, before beating Bismarck Century 2-1 in double overtime for the title.

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Entering the postseason in third place in the Eastern Dakota Conference for the second year in a row was nothing to be ashamed of, especially considering they'd been second-to-last in recent years. But somehow, they managed to peak at the perfect time, undoubtedly playing their best soccer of the season when it mattered most.

That's why, this year, the Packers have found themselves in a unique situation; they're winning - a lot. With two victories last week, and their third in a row, West Fargo is sitting comfortably in second place in the EDC with a 7-1-0 conference record and 9-4-0 overall.

As it stands, the Packers are just two points behind No. 1 Fargo Shanley - a team for which they've played once this season and lost by the slimmest of margins, 1-0. West Fargo's only other losses have come against Western Dakota Association teams.

What may be most perplexing is not how well the Packers are doing, but how they're doing it. Entering the season, they were without some of their top guns, including All-State selections Braden Schmid, Jade Johnson and Austin Dillard, and All-Tournament honoree Tarley Gaye. Those players unquestionably had the largest impact on West Fargo en route to the state title, and it would not have been surprising if this year's team had struggled a bit.

But they haven't struggled. Instead, West Fargo is thriving, and doing so without one or two players making most of the noise.

In fact, according to coach Doug Millar, that just may be the key to the Packers' run of success: depth.

"Last year, five guys might have had 5 assists, 3 assists; some guys would have 10-12 goals, then nothing," Millar said. "Then you look at Thursday's game, and we had 11 guys get in the books."

Millar was talking about the Packers' 6-1 win over Fargo North (0-6-2, 1-8-2). Five Packers scored the six goals, and even more tallied assists. It's a pattern that has occurred with frequency all season.

"We're deeper than last year. When we do bring kids off the bench, they're on the same page as the kids they're replacing," he said. "Not that I want it to happen, but we can have a guy go down, and it won't affect us as much. The parts are a lot more interchangeable."

That's not to say West Fargo doesn't have a few shining stars to its advantage, because it does, but the talent doesn't stop after a handful of athletes. For instance, so far this season 15 players have tallied goals and 13 of them have at least two.

While everyone is chipping in, there still are a few players that stick out.

With three goals last week - one in Tuesday's the 9-1 win over Grand Forks Red River (1-6-1, 3-9-1) and two versus the Spartans - Kory Wolden increased his season tally to a team-high 9 goals. The junior midfielder also has an assist.

Wolden isn't alone. Another junior, Lucas Miller, has seven goals on the season. The forward is an assist machine, too, getting a foot on four West Fargo goals in Tuesday's win, which contributed to his team high of 12.

After that, it's just as easy as throwing a dart at the roster and hitting another contributor, be it Sam Saville (5 goals, 5 assists), Jacob Dufault (4 goals, 4 assists), Al Abase Zuheer (6 goals, 3 assists) -the list goes on and on.

Everything is not roses, however. While the Packers are making some significant noise to this point, Millard does see a specific area for improvement.

"Anytime we do stumble, it's not because of effort. It's not because of execution. ... it comes down to the wildcard: communication," he said.

Take Thursday's game, for instance. While the 6-1 score may indicate West Fargo overpowering the Spartans, the truth is the first half was a different story, Millar said.

"We were up 2-1, but I saw a lot of things I didn't like," he said. "It's frustrating, because communication is one thing we can control; our opponent's skill we can't."

If the Packers can learn to speak up on the field, they will harness that final, critical piece that could propel them to a successful defense of their first-ever state championship. But with a few weeks until the postseason, Millar noted it's a bit premature to think about that.

"I hate to bring it up because that's putting the cart before the horse," he said. "The teams that are left in the EDC are all fighting for position at state."

West Fargo had a chance to improve its standing when they hosted No. 3 Davies (5-3-0, 6-3-1) on Tuesday, but results were not in by press time. The Packers next will visit rival Moorhead at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Besides communication, the big thing the Packers need to remember is to keep trying to get the ball in the back of the net as frequently as possible.

"There's a reason we outshoot other teams," Millar said. "We're playing toward one common goal: generating scoring opportunities."

And if West Fargo ever finds itself behind in the final stretch, Millar wants his players to remember one thing: "I'm not looking for a savior; I'm looking for execution."

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