The Fenwick boys' soccer team is accustomed to winning. Last season was no exception.
Under coach Matt Scharpf, the Friars posted a record of 19-8-2 (all but two of those victories were shutouts) and fell one win short of going downstate.
New coach Tony Hepburn is certainly no stranger to success. In two years as the girls' coach, he has gone 32-14-5?#34;guiding the team to a fourth-place finish at State in 2004 and one win away from returning downstate last season.
But the boys' team is carrying a different tune as it prepares for the 2005 season. The Friars lost much of last year's squad to graduation and featured only 30 players last week at tryouts, explained Hepburn, who will continue to coach the girls' team in the spring.
"The talent pool is much smaller," added Hepburn. "We're largely a young team and we have a lot of key positions we're trying to fill."
Gaping holes were left by the departures of the team's leading scorer last season, forward Steve Marifjeren, as well as goalkeeper Matt Pyzdrowski and defender Phil Yeager.
This youthful team faces not only heated competition in the Chicago Catholic League (where it was 8-3 last season), but must also deal with the effects of moving for the first time from Class A competition to AA.
Prior to this season, boys' and girls' soccer were the only two-class-system sports at Fenwick competing in Class A. Since the early 1990s, the IHSA had been operating under a different system to divide schools between A and AA in soccer, according to Elizabeth Sauser, the IHSA's assistant executive director. In all the other two-class sports, schools with an enrollment of less than 735 were considered Class A. In soccer, though, the cutoff was 1,250 for boys and 1,350 for girls, thus enabling Fenwick (with an enrollment of 1,151, the latest figure posted on the Fenwick Web site) to remain in Class A. The reason for the different enrollment cutoff in soccer was, explained Sauser, to encourage smaller schools to start programs in what is one of the younger IHSA sports, traditionally populated by larger schools. Under a new rule passed in March and taking effect for the 2005-06 school year, the IHSA reset the soccer cutoff to 735.
"This just has everyone in line at the same time," said Sauser.
Once the State playoffs begin, Fenwick soccer will face a bracket largely composed of schools with much higher enrollment totals.
"It will be quite a challenge," said Hepburn. "We're going to struggle. There will be no doubts about that."
But based on what the players have shown him thus far, Hepburn believes the Friars can remain competitive even as they rebuild.
"I'm extremely proud of the boys' work ethic," the coach said. "We'll do our best."
Leading the Friars will be senior forward Nick Harvalis, senior defender Matt Collins and junior midfielder Alex Wallach. "I expect them to lead by example," said Hepburn of his three captains.
Harvalis, observed Hepburn, is "very dedicated, a great role model for the younger players."
Hepburn described Collins as a "tough kid and a first-rate competitor," and Wallach as "extremely skillful."
The supporting cast may lack significant varsity playing experience, but nearly all of the players compete in traveling soccer, said Hepburn, who also serves as a coaching director for one of Fenwick's main travel soccer feeder programs, the River Forest Rapids.
The challenges come early and often on the schedule. To open the season, Fenwick plays host to local rival Oak Park and River Forest Friday night (4:30 p.m. start). The two teams played to a 2-2 tie in last season's opener at OPRF.
The Friars will get a look at some vaunted AA programs in both the Willowbrook and Libertyville/Pepsi Challenge tournaments (which run, respectively, Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 and Sept. 6-17).
Last season, the Friars opened Catholic League play with six consecutive shutout victories. The most memorable: A 1-0 double-overtime triumph Sept. 28 at Mt. Carmel. The teams will meet again Sept. 27 in Oak Park.
Other notable games include rematches with the three teams that beat the Friars in conference last season?#34;Providence (Sept. 24 away), St. Ignatius (Oct. 4 at home) and Brother Rice (Oct. 8 at home).