Sky is the limit for Bulldog boys soccer

<p>Jessica Keller photo Hermiston High School soccer player battle for the ball during a practice Thursday night at Sandstone Middle School.</p>

The Hermiston boys soccer team is shooting to do something it has never done in the program’s history this season: make it past the first round of the 5A state soccer playoffs.

With the first week of the 2014 season behind them, however, coach Rich Harshberger said the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do before any postseason celebrating can begin.

With Harshberger deciding on the varsity and junior squad rosters Wednesday evening, the boys only began playing with their respective teammates Thursday afternoon.

As Harshberger put the Bulldog players through their paces on the practice pitch at Sandstone Middle School Thursday, he carefully monitored their actions and reminded them to make the easy passes and constantly communicate with one another.

“Did you want the ball?” Harshberger asked one of his players who missed an opportunity to take possession. “I wanted you to have the ball.”

At the end of practice, Harshberger cautioned the athletes their first game of the season is less than a week a way, and they need to take things seriously.

After the players departed the field to get some rest before a 5:30 early-bird practice at Kennison Field Friday morning, Harshberger said, in some respects, his team is ahead of schedule this year compared to where it began the 2013 season.

Because many of the Bulldogs played soccer together in summer leagues, they came together for prep season as a tighter unit.

“They were organized together in the off season, and that helped to some extent, but now it’s time for me to bring them under my umbrella,” Harshberger said, adding the players consider themselves a brotherhood. “That’s put us ahead of the game.”

With 40 players turning out the first week of practice and possibly more additions coming through the second, he said he is satisfied with the size of his team. It also helps the returning varsity players are starting off the year a little more seasoned.

“Last season was kind of a rebuilding year,” Harshberger said of the Bulldogs, who finished 8-5-1 and ended their season with a state play-in game loss.

Harshberger said he will closely monitor their progress throughout the season and adjust practice and workout regimens to target areas where players need to improve, but said, ultimately, their biggest challenge will be making sure they are prepared mentally. That is where they struggled most late in the season last year and a key factor in why they didn’t make a deeper playoff run.

First, however, Harshberger said he must first assess players’ individual strengths and weaknesses in their season opener against the 3A Umatilla Vikings, which starts at 6 p.m. Thursday at Kennison Field. The Bulldog girls will play at 4 p.m. at Kennison.

During the regular season, Harshberger said perennial league favorite Hood River will be the Bulldogs’ litmus test for how far they go, overall.

“We have a lot of ground to cover between now and then,” he said.

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