Panthers on the pitch | SkyHiDailyNews.com

Panthers on the pitch

Soccer players from Middle Park (in white) work to contain an opposing player during match play in Granby Wednesday evening against the Sheridan Rams.

Soccer players from Middle Park (in white) work to contain an opposing player during match play in Granby Wednesday evening against the Sheridan Rams.

Americans love sports. From little leaguers struggling to understand the fundamentals of a given game to multi-million dollar championship productions athletic competition is a fundamental aspect of our shared culture.

For decades Americans have looked askance at the worlds most popular game though, soccer, preferring instead more traditionally American sports like baseball or football. That dynamic has been changing over the last several years with help from US World Cup teams, both men and women, who have had strong performances in what is, arguably, the worlds biggest sporting event, the FIFA World Cup.

The growing popularity of soccer is evident in Middle Park High School (MPHS) and is reflected in participation numbers on the schools soccer team. This fall boy’s soccer is tied with football in terms of student participation with 35 players suiting up. Mentoring the cadre of young men for the season is head coach Andy Paugh, starting his sixth year as head soccer coach at MPHS.

The panther’s soccer team is divided between Varsity and Junior Varsity (JV) with about 16 players dedicated to each team with a few boys from both squads playing on both JV and Varsity. Coach Paugh said he expects to dress around 20 kids for each game.

The boys have been busy throughout the summer prepping for the fall season with loosely organized scrimmage sessions twice each week. The first day of official practices for the panther boys 2016 season was Aug. 15. Rather than hold a two-a-day training camp at the start of the season Coach Paugh has held multi-hour single practices. Soccer has fewer breaks than most sports with only a single 10-minute half time between 40-minute halves when the game clock is not running.

Three matches are already behind the panthers this season including their season opener, a hard-fought loss to Lake County with the panthers going down 2-3. Coach Paugh said he is happy with where the team appears to be headed. “I’m definitely pleased with what I have seen so far,” Paugh said. “The first game the boys played well, we dominated overall with passing and possession. I’m excited about how the season is going to play out.”

The game against Lake County featured several standout players including Elliot Shaw, a senior midfielder who scored both of the panther’s goals during the game. Shaw also serves as the MPHS football team kicker. Paugh also highlighted the contributions of Hayden Smith who is filling the goalie position for the team this year. “Hayden has stepped up to help his team and put himself in the goal,” Coach Paugh said. “He’s done a good job.”

Paugh said the team’s upperclassmen leadership, including seven returning seniors, is one of the panther’s biggest strengths this year. The team got a big boost of youth for the 2016 season with 15 freshmen suiting up.

Coach Paugh sees the panther’s size as their biggest hurdle this year. “I think our size seems to be an issue overall,” Paugh said. “We have some smaller players so when we go up against bigger and faster kids it can be hard to keep up. But we just have to work to move around them and keep possession of the ball.” He added, “We are trying to get the kids to have fun and play hard.”

The panther’s Varsity squad will compete in 15 regular season matches this year. Typically each schools JV team would compete the same night as the Varsity squad but because of the smaller size of JV squads at other 3A schools Coach Paugh has had trouble finding JV competition for the panther boys. The JV squad will not compete during the first four Varsity games scheduled for this season. “I’m looking to schedule more through the season with some schools we don’t necessarily play with our Varsity players,” Paugh said.

Coach Paugh is staying focused on the here and now but said there are a few games in which he really hopes to see the boys perform well, including a new/old rivalry game between the panthers and Estes Park. “It will be the first time we have played against them (Estes Park) since I have been coaching,” said Paugh. “We look forward to seeing if we can pull that one out as well.”

Going forward this season Paugh expects lots of hard work from the young panthers. “Our kids are great kids,” Paugh said. “They will work hard and give their best effort. They will be out there giving 100 percent each game. They will be fun to watch and will be a good team this year.”

The panther’s next scheduled match is set for 4:30 p.m. today, Friday September 2, at Middle Park High School against the SkyView Academy Hawks.