At one point last week, five teams in the District 9-6A boys soccer standings shared a 2-1-0 record for the top spot in the conference.
Although the wins count all the same in the standings, there’s some different about the way Plano East has conducted itself early into its league schedule. The Panthers, relegated to the cellar of 9-6A last year following a winless campaign, have asserted themselves as a potential contender early into district play after knocking off Allen and McKinney Boyd — both of which entered 9-6A action ranked within the state’s top 25 by Top Drawer Soccer.
Last week’s 2-1 victory over the Eagles was particularly noteworthy, with East netting a pair of goals inside the match’s final 10 minutes to score a come-from-behind shocker over the reigning district champions.
“The biggest thing I was impressed with was the discipline and the way they played throughout our game,” said Rick Woodard, East head coach. “They never wavered from what we knew we needed to do. Even after the game, instead of everyone jumping around like we did against McKinney Boyd, they were excited but more grounded.”
Moments after the Panthers had a penalty kick denied by Allen goalkeeper Jackson Leavitt, East senior James Stautler set the wheels in motion for the comeback with an equalizer over the middle. Later, the waning minutes of the match, a free kick by junior William Torres found its way to junior Walters Che, who got behind the Allen defense and finished the set piece for a 2-1 advantage.
“Soccer is a weird game. I’ve won games before where we’ve been totally out-played and vice-versa, but this game was back and forth,” Woodard said. “It was a very hard-fought game on both sides. When they got their goal, it was a combination of mental mistakes right in a row and their kid buried a beautiful shot.
“Defensively, we’ve got to overcome those simple, mental mistakes. In the Sachse tournament, we had four goals scored on us — all on set pieces and all on mental mistakes, like not staying where we were supposed to be.”
Cleaning up those executional lapses while better harnessing the mental edge needed to hang in one of the area’s tougher districts have been at the forefront for the Panthers early into the season. Despite East’s hardships last season, Woodard didn’t balk at scheduling an early litmus test when setting up a preseason finale against reigning Class 6A state champion Flower Mound — a test East passed with a 1-0 victory.
“I knew we had the talent. It was just a different mindset that we developed at the beginning of the year. I told the boys that last year was the first year in over 30 years of coaching that I’ve ever had a below-.500 season and I guaranteed them that isn’t happening again,” Woodard said. “It took a few weeks after cuts to get that mental edge that we needed — like not walking between drills and making sure we were doing the right things — and we’ve seen that continue throughout the season.”
Returning four all-district performers — Stautler, Torres and seniors Samuel Camacho and Ricardo Pedroza — helped facilitate that progress, while Woodard noted that Che and senior Nick Bush have been among the team’s early-season standouts, as well as the goalkeeping duo of senior Dean Hughes and junior Barrett Agnew.
“We’re probably two deep at every position this year, which is something we haven’t been able to say for a long time,” Woodard said.
So far, it’s featured a product far more familiar to the black and gold faithful. Prior to last season, the Panthers had qualified for the playoffs three straight years, including a run to the regional finals in 2016.
Despite the promising start, East isn’t immune to the occasional hiccup — sandwiching the wins over Allen and Boyd between a 3-0 loss to Prosper, who is also part of the early first-place logjam. With no shortage of challenging matchups still on the docket, Woodard hopes the lessons learned from that setback against the Eagles breed a product more akin to the one showcased against Allen.
“We need to continue focusing on the basics and playing our style of ball,” he said. “That was part of what happened against Prosper. We didn’t stay with our game plan and transitioned into theirs. We don’t play the way they do and it showed.
“The biggest thing is just staying the course, because this district is crazy.”