Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills still atop Southeast standings

Leader sportswriter

Sylvan Hills has all but wrapped up the 5A Southeast Conference with a 7-0 league record this spring, but it’s not fear of losing that motivates the Bear soccer program, it’s the fear of simply being scored on.

Hillside has shut out every conference opponent to date, including a 9-0 rout over county rival North Pulaski on Monday at Bill Blackwood Field. Forward Jacob Persson led the way with four goals, with two goals by two-sport star Matt Cable, two by junior Josh Persson and a goal by Jeff Hern.

“This is the deepest team I’ve had by far,” said Bears coach Sam Persson, now in his fourth year at the helm. “The seniors this year were freshmen when I started, and they have all really developed. People are really motivated and focused this year. The strength and leadership of the seniors has translated into the younger players fitting in the spots we needed them to.”

The Bears (9-1-1 overall) began their season with a 4-1 loss to two-time defending Class 6A champions Searcy. Sylvan Hills has been in the 6A-East Conference with the Lions during their title runs in 2007 and 2008, but dropped down a classification at the start of the ’08-’09 school year.

They went 2-0-1 in an early season tournament that included a 3-3 tie with Episcopal Collegiate Studies, making the total tally of goals scored against them seven for the season.

Persson credits much of that with a change in defensive strategy at the start of the season. Out was the flat-back defense, which stretches the four defenders across the width of the field, and in was the sweeper-stopper system, which concentrates defensive strength in the middle of the field.

“We made some mistakes with it early on,” said Persson. “But the kids have really bought into it. This is the best defense for high school soccer – it’s a little bit easier.”

Senior Kevin Lassen has led the surge on defense as a stopper, with help from sweeper and senior team captain Daniel Johnson.

The defense is where the core of senior leadership shows the strongest for Sylvan Hills, with Aaron Maxey and Barry Bir. Bir returns after missing his junior season, along with Lasson and forward Jeff Herns. Johnson shares co-captain duties with midfielder Scott Hicks and Maxey.

“They can get in and really physical. It’s a good combination,” said Persson.

The Bears are not just resigned to being a defensive power, however. Their offensive strength matches the strength on defense with multiple scorers, led by junior forward Jacob Persson. Josh Persson has also contributed several goals this season, along with Jeff Hern.

Hern will be the only offensive player lost to graduation in May, giving the Bears a solid core of retuning players next season.

“Offensively, we won’t miss a beat,” said Sam Persson. “Defensively, we’re going to miss those four seniors.”

Along with Josh and Jacob, who are cousins to coach Persson, little brother Phillip Persson serves as his goalkeeper. All three will be returning seniors next season.

“It makes it a little harder to coach in a sense,” said Sam Persson. “Because you want to make sure that you don’t play any favorites, but I think we’ve been able to balance that pretty well.

“They’ve all played at the club level and don’t need a lot of coaching, and they’ve been a pretty good example to some of the others.”

Sylvan Hills will wrap up the regular season next week at home with a non-conference rematch with Searcy on Monday before closing out its Southeast schedule against Monticello on Tuesday and Mills University Studies on Friday.

With an eight-game winning streak and unblemished record in conference, Persson said the main thing he is guarding against at this point is the dreaded overconfidence factor.

“We try to keep that down to manageable levels,” said Persson. “We have to keep our expectations realistic. There’s competition in the state that’s well beyond what we’re seeing right now. The biggest thing we want to do right now is get out of conference without getting scored on. We would be proud of that if we can pull it off.”