PUNXSUTAWNEY — Coming off a record-setting year, Punxsutawney's boys' soccer team has high hopes for another season to match, or even top, last year's, but there's a disadvantage to having a program with a reputation: People know you're coming.
"This year, we're not sneaking up on anybody," head coach Phil Shenkle said. "Two years ago, we just snuck over the .500 mark, so it is quite possible we snuck up on a few teams last year. Now, with last year's record, they're going to expect us to be a big, strong program. We'll get everybody's best game, and that'll be good for us. We'll get to see what we're really made of."
Punxsy won't be the same team those others were familiarized with last year, having lost six seniors, five of whom were starters, but Shenkle is looking forward to seeing which of his younger players will step in and fill the gaps this season, as well.
"I hate to see last year's seniors go, but we're excited about what we've got filling in," he said. "We have some young guys filling gaps that were talented last year but have definitely grown and are ready to step in. I feel like we'll be a good, solid team.
"Obviously, when you start plugging sophomores into gaps, there's always the concern of whether we are too immature and what we're going to have in a high pressure game, but we'll find out pretty quickly. DuBois is our third game, and that will be a good test."
Shenkle was quick to point out that knowing DuBois will be a challenge doesn't mean his team is looking past its first two games, though.
Punxsy will open the season Sept. 6 against what Shenkle called a "renewed DuBois Central team" with a new coach and a new energy.
Punxsy's second game will be against Curwensville, a program known for putting together a consistently solid defensive structure.
A few new players isn't the only thing different about Punxsy's program this year, either. Punxsy will be running a new system this year, but coach Shenkle wasn't willing to give away too much information to tip off the competition, just yet.
"For years, I've run a 4-4-2, but this year, we're changing it up," he said. "It's totally different, I can tell you that. The 4-4-2 has four fullbacks, and we played a diamond formation with them, then you have four midfielders and two fullbacks. We're changing that up, because I want to feed off of the players that I have. I decided I didn't want to make my players fit my system, so instead why not make a system that fits them?"
The decision to make the change wasn't an easy one for Shenkle, who has been coaching a 4-4-2 for 14 years.
"It's been a stretch for me, but I think they're excited about it," he said. "It allows for some more freedom and passing, and the roles aren't quite as defined. We're getting to the point where we have good ball control at every position, so we want to use that to our advantage."
While it may still be unclear what system you'll see Punxsy running this year, Shenkle is confident you'll see one thing out of his team this year, as in years past: Hard work.
"Some of the seniors that have gone on before these guys established a culture of working hard," he said. "These guys have been working really hard, too. Buddy Young is one of our assistant coaches, and his specialty is conditioning. He's been running the guys as hard as possible, and they're working really hard."
Jeremy Long and Ryan Hayden will also assist with the coaching duties for Punxsy.
As for his expectations for this season?
"We're looking forward to a good year," Shenkle said. "We were 15-4-1 last year, went to the district finals and lost in double overtime to Bradford. We'd like to see another season with a nice high number of wins, but we know there's some really good teams out there, too."