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Playing for practice and pride

Last Friday was a bittersweet day for West Fargo Packer boys' soccer coach Doug Millar.

It was sweet for the longtime coach to see both of his boys on the field at once, as the two squared off for their respective teams in the annual Alumni Game, held Friday, Aug. 11. Brandon, a junior, played defense for the current Packer squad. West Fargo grad Kevin played with his fellow alumni.

The bitter moments came preceding the contest, as the team remembered a lost comrade. Each member of the alumni squad wore a black armband for Chris McDougall, the Packer keeper who led the team to a second place finish at the state tournament. McDougall died this summer.

"It was a great tribute. He was sorely missed," Millar said.

In the end, it was a day to celebrate West Fargo soccer. But, the savvy coach also used the game to judge his current squad just a bit. The verdict was one that he expected.

"We're a little inexperienced in back," Millar said of his defense. "Of course, it's never good to lose the glut of your system on defense."

Gone are nine seniors from last year's team, and, indeed, the majority played defense. Most played for a long time. Take former stopper Tyson Weatherly. The young man was in the system for four seasons as Millar's main man on defense.

"I was talking to (Packer grad) Jimmy Hoy, who has a little bit of facial hair this fall, and I was telling him that he won't find any whiskers in our backfield. We're going to go through a definite learning process," Millar said.

It's not all bad news in back. The defense returns young players Austin Jensen, Brandon Fitterer, Joe Glarum and Brandon Millar, who all saw some time last year at both the varsity and JV levels. Kevin McLean, a mid last year, will move back to play stopper, something Millar hand-picked McLean to do last spring. And Nathan Kuik, the team's keeper, is just a junior. The current stopper is one player that coach Millar considers "incredible" in talent.

"We're very lucky to have him back there," Millar said. "He's pretty invaluable when you have the inexperience factor."

Up front, there are six seniors who Millar will lean on very heavily in the early going. Captains Ryan Salter, Gerrit Haerter and Aaron Redenius are three players who each made strides last year, with Redenius even making the all-tournament team at State. Kevin McLean, Tito Lafta and Bashir Mohamud are also back to lead the squad.

"They're going to have to be the responsible ones, and play with maturity, whether they like it or not," Millar said. "That's just the situation we're in."

The entire program is young. And deep. It's the most bodies the Packer program has seen in a while, and Millar has responded by adding a third assistant coach. Joining assistants Dave Stahlecher and Jon Melendez will be former Packer James Moe.

"We'll play with two junior varsity teams this year, and James will be in charge of one of the squads. He did a nice job this summer with our U17 girls, so we think that he'll be a good fit," Millar said.

With 22 sophomores and 15 freshmen making up more than half of the 58 players Millar has out for soccer this fall, there will be a need to break out the "kid gloves" for a while. That will happen as the team faces some tough competition this weekend, playing Minot and Bismarck in the East/West Crossover to start the year.

"We got a tough draw, no doubt," he said. "Minot was the best team out West in the regular season, and Bismarck was strong at the tournament, so they're two teams to beat this year and we get them right out of the gate. I think, as coaches, we'll have to focus on pats on the back instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind. We'll have to stay positive and build the guys up. That way we don't lose sight of the fun factor in all of this."

While the defense will go through a trial by fire, the offense can chip in by doing one thing well, and that's maintaining possession. If West Fargo can control the midfield and build chances, rather than trying to dump-and-chase as some teams do, they can control the pace of the game, and keep the other team's offense at bay.

"It will be a big ingredient when it comes to taking pressure off of our younger guys. If we can make the smart decision, make the right pass instead of taking a gamble, then we can do all right. Minot and Bismarck can be as good as they want to be right now. I know that at the end we'll be a better team than the one that shows up out west this weekend. That's just the kind of year it's shaping up to be."

West Fargo will kick off the regular season on Saturday at the Bismarck Community Bowl. They'll open East Region play against Grand Forks Red River on Thursday, Aug. 24 in Grand Forks. The Pack's first home contest will be on Tuesday, Aug. 29 when they host Grand Forks Central. Game time at the Water Tower complex is 6 p.m.