Hornet soccer returns to postseason after a five-year absence

Mar. 22—HUNTSVILLE — After making the regional finals in 2018 and coming up just short of the state tournament, Huntsville boys' soccer has been shut out of the postseason.

Over the last five years, Huntsville has been on the outside looking in at the end of the season. With a different approach this season, the Hornets were able to start strong and continue the season strong.

Huntsville head coach Robert Taylor took the opportunity to focus on rebuilding the program from the ground up and focus on the younger group and have them become the foundation of the program.

"It felt like we were in a spot where we needed to restart everything. Not because things were bad, we just needed to invest in kids over a longer period. I think we are seeing that now," Taylor said. "There's a lot of positive players that will be with us for the next two or three seasons. Hopefully, they built the expectation of where we are supposed to be with this program."

Coming into the season the Hornets held a 20-man roster with 13 of them being a part of the senior class. But Taylor and the staff relied on a handful of seniors this season to help right the ship.

Joseph Mejia, Jose M. Martinez and Isauro Zuniga became a trio of starters for the Hornets on the pitch and were the focal point. Zuniga took on the role of the Huntsville goalie and shined.

The senior was in goal for 1,268 minutes and played in 19 for the Hornets 21 regular season games. In his time in goal, Zuniga made 93 saves and averaged 4.9 saves per game. Their opponents slipped 23 goals past him.

Mejia and M. Martinez were helpful as midfielders too. M. Martinez has set the tone with offense and leads the seniors with two goals and five assists to his teammates. Mejia added two more goals for Huntsville. Junior Claudio Alvarenga leads the team with five goals scored.

For the 13 seniors, this will be the first time they see a Hornet squad play in the postseason since being in the program at Mance Park.

"You feel good for those kids because at no point that they have been in our program they have never seen a team go to the playoffs, which is baffling to me," Taylor said. "For them to have this desire that they have chased now for four years, as long as we can say we did everything to play our best, whatever happened we will be OK with. I'm just happy for those guys."

But the real key to flipping the season was the different message that Taylor had for the team.

On Wednesdays, the squad brought in 11 members to start the leadership team and they held a meeting to teach members how to become leaders rather than focus on the popular kids or just seniors.

The group originally started with 11 members before expanding to 22 after they were asked to bring a friend to the next meeting. With a large group, Huntsville saw more members becoming secondary coaches on the pitch and assisting with all groups.

However, Taylor and the staff took a different approach to building the leadership crew. Instead of expecting people to stand up, they decided to teach them what it looks like to be a leader.

It became a class that showed them how to be leaders the same way a teacher explains a new concept while in class.

"If there is one lesson I've learned this year, whatever you want them to do you have to model for them. Sometimes as coaches, you want to assume they can do it. Sometimes you don't do that with leadership. They learned what being a leader looks like. If you watch the game and see them in practice, you see those players leading, which is important because I can't stop the game and have them talk to me," Taylor said.

Huntsville returns to the postseason for the first time since the 2018 run and will be a fourth seed, which they are OK with. The Hornets drew Longview for the bi-district round of the Class 5A playoffs.

The Lobo's squad brings in a 14-0 record in district play and a 19-4 record overall. But things were similar in 2018 when they upset Georgetown in the bi-district round.

"They should not have any pressure when it comes to Tuesday. They have done what they wanted to do up to this point and go to the position they wanted to be. It's not like an obligation to go win. This is an opportunity to get tested and show how much you have grown. If you try your best and don't win, it doesn't mean everything we have done counts for nothing. Let's just enjoy it from here," Taylor said.

Huntsville and Longview will match up in the bi-district round of the Class 5A playoffs at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 26. The game will be held in Lufkin.