The soccer field is set. Senior RJ Vargo slips on his Blue Nike Mercurials. Stepping on the pitch pridefully, he strides across the white lines for his final year as a Country Day soccer player.
However, this year, warm-ups look a little different — as the memory of Country Day’s 17-1 record and section championship from 2021-22 was carried away with last year’s seniors.
The shoes of the six departed seniors — Arjit Trivedi, Miles Morrow, Ethan Monasa, Malek Owaidat, Nihal Gulati and most notably, California’s goal leader, Arjin Claire — needed to be filled.
Out of the six, four played competitive club soccer, raising the question of whether Country Day could repeat last year’s almost-perfect season.
RJ’s answer? Undoubtedly, but not without a little work.
Boasting a current record of 5-2-1 as of Sept. 24, 2022, RJ does not bother himself with the regular season record.
“Frankly, we could lose a majority of our games pre-playoffs, and it wouldn’t matter that much,” he said.
“Obviously there’s that competitive spirit that pushes you to win every game, but in reality, the only game that matters is the championship.”
According to sophomore Henry Wilson, they are well on their way to achieving that final goal.
“This year’s seniors have really stepped up,” Wilson said.
“Even though some positions have changed, no one has complained because they realize what it takes to win.”
Both RJ and Wilson said that senior Tonye Jack has taken on a leadership role this year.
Jack switched from right back to center back, naturally becoming the focal point of the team’s defense.
Jack has had to learn to hold a line, direct defensive play and man-mark. Jack is naturally predisposed to make offensive plays and reigning this in has been a challenge.
Even though it’s been a major change to Jack’s playing style, he said last year’s center back, Ethan Monasa, prepared him well.
“Watching him have command over the field was like nothing else,” Jack said. “He was a player that was always talking, and that’s something I try to replicate in my game.”
With Jack controlling the back, midfielder Vargo can direct the majority of his attention to offense.
With these two working to make up for the loss of talent, Head Coach Matt Vargo has few doubts that the team can become back to back champions.
“The great thing about school sports is that it’s unlike anything else,” he said. “Every four years a new group comes in, and even though we had really strong players leave us, we have new ones that continue to grow and mature over time.”
So, despite the loss of talent, the most difficult challenge remains maintaining chemistry on the field.
For RJ and many other players, last year’s seniors had played with them throughout club teams, Country Day’s middle school team and all of their high school years.
Yet, due to the school’s small size, RJ said the team’s positive chemistry has not changed much.
Coach Vargo attributes this to the team’s high morale, companionship and intense energy.
“Everyone just wants to have a good time,” coach Vargo said. “When someone scores a goal, we all cheer — but more importantly, if someone messes up, no one is dragging them down.”
Coach Vargo said that even though the team is undefeated, the season has still been difficult.
“Arjin is impossible to replace because he scored 37 goals, which is almost two goals a game. Naturally, it’s been hard to find ways to score,” he said. “And the literal strength we had on our backline was impeccable, so it’s been hard to combat ways to change that.”
One of the most important processes that has contributed to coach Vargo’s success throughout the soccer season this year, is his and his team’s flexibility.
Constantly moving players around, he never sticks to a set roster.
An example of this is when Country Day plays stronger teams, they become more defensively-minded, shifting RJ back to center defensive mid or center back to ensure a stable back five to limit opposing teams’ ability to score.
For weaker teams, coach Vargo makes constant changes and substitutions to ensure not only everyone gets a chance to play, but everyone is also comfortable playing at every position.
Doing this has not only contributed to the team’s current success, but in coach Vargo’s mind, will help Country Day’s team in the future continue to put trophies in their case.
“We already do a lot of technical practice to get guys ready to play all over,” he said. “Mix that with more and more years of experience and maturing and we have an extremely bright four years ahead of us.”
The team’s current goal? Winning another section championship.
— By Jacob Chand
Originally published in the Sept. 28 edition of The Octagon