For much of his tenure as Cuyahoga Falls boys soccer coach, having his team be successful has seemed just out of reach for coach Eric Ortopan.
The 2018 season was emblematic of that. Despite playing much better soccer last fall, Falls again finished with a record of 5-12 and 0-7 in the Suburban League National Conference. Falls still finds itself without a National Conference win, as it was eliminated 2-1 in the first round of the Division I playoffs.
However, as he enters his eighth year in charge of the Black Tigers, Ortopan believes hard work and team tragedy has unified and strengthened his squad. He also has a 12-member senior class — many of whom are multi-year starters — to work with.
In short, Ortopan notes there are "no excuses" for lack of success this fall.
"Their team goal is to leave everything on the field for every game," Ortopan said. "That’s what we’re focusing on. I think good things will roll if we stay that way.
"The gap has closed, that’s for sure," he added. "Other than seeing what happened at Stow and North Royalton last year, all of our games were competitive. With our 12 seniors, these kids are all returning contributors. With this group, it’s not what they’re doing individually, it’s what they’re doing as a team. They are driving the car here right now."
Falls will operate again from a 4-3-3 formation, as the Black Tigers look to avoid bunkering this season
"I don’t think it’s the tactics that are going to win games," Ortopan said. "We want them to go at teams. Be dangerous. Be offensive."
Ortopan notes breaking the drought in the National Conference is paramount — but also notes that, as usual, the conference will be a gauntlet.
"Any program that sees that many losses in any league, it’s hurts," Ortopan said. "They’re on it this year. It’s hard for a young adolescent kid to develop a different mindset. Our programs are at different spots in their development, but it’s coming. Game by game, they’re all good programs. I say it every year. Anything could happen everything night.
Falls coaching staff retained varsity assistant Dave Ortopan and junior varsity coach Rob Boorman. However, after graduating from Falls in the spring, Tanner Guffin decided to remain with Falls as its goalkeeping coach. Guffin and defender Pierce Egan were the long regular starters to graduate for Falls.
Guffin has two solid goalies to work with. Ortopan said senior Brady Zeiszler has improved much after getting the call up from junior varsity, but sophomore Evan Reischman returns after getting spot varsity time last fall.
Anchoring Falls’ defense will be senior captain and center back Jack Hiland, who Ortopan calls "phenomenal."
"He’s grown so much as a person," Orotpan said. "His leadership translates on the field every game. He gives everything he has."
Sophomore Chris Gruska also started at center back last year and has grown physically into the starting position. Despite some preseason health concerns, senior Lou Motta also will see time at center back.
After transferring from Coventry last summer, senior Jordan Akins scored 10 goals, despite having to sit out half the season due to OHSSA transfer rules. Despite this, Ortopan has switched Akins to start outside back.
What’s more, senior four-year starer Josh Boorman will start at outside back, which Ortopan notes gives Falls two dangerous players going forward.
Junior Kevin Fratz and senior Matt Hammonds both with see time outside.
Holding the lynchpin center midfield spot for Falls will be junior Mason Akins.
"The thing about Mason is his incredible vision," Ortopan said. "He’s so difficult to shut down with the ball at his feet."
At right midfield, sophomore Mohomed Abdulhameed has "a license to go" every time he touches the ball. Seniors Dominic Szakal and Wyatt Long are likely to rotate often at left midfield.
At the winger positions, senior Luke Feora brings a huge technical acumen, while sophomore Joey Moening looks to build on a strong freshman season. Hammonds and senior Andrew Kuntz will rotate in often on the wing.
Ortopan notes Falls will deploy two different dangerous players at forward. Senior Mike Brustowski is Falls’ top returning scorer and loves to run at net, while senior Logan Webb is the prototypical target man.
"Mike is an animal. Mike has one job. His job is to score goals and he is just relentless," Ortopan said. "If I was a center back, I would not want to face Mike for 80 minutes. Logan Webb … that kid is dangerous from anywhere. Our teams know what both of our guys can do."
Falls is set to open the season Tuesday at home vs. Norton at 7 p.m. before hosting its alumni game Aug. 24 at 1 p.m. vs. Uniontown Lake at Laybourne Field.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MLeonard_GHO