It takes time to build a high school sports program. And Jay O’Neill, who is beginning his second season as Belen High School’s boys soccer coach, believes the Eagles are showing signs of improvement after finishing last year with a dismal 2-15 record.
“We’re better as a team this year,” O’Neill said. “We’re actually starting to think and pass as a team.”
According to O’Neill, the first five games of the season are going to be crucial to the team’s overall success this year. The Eagles start with three games they could win, based on last year’s results. The Eagles open with St. Michael’s, Gallup and West Mesa — three teams they played close last season.
“These are going to be some good warm-up games for us,” O’Neill said. “We have a very good chance of picking up some early victories.”
Though the Eagles had a tough go of it last year, there was an upside, the coach said. The team kept improving throughout the year.
“We actually had a lot of close games last season, especially in district,” O’Neill said.
The Eagles only two wins last season came in district play against Deming, and the team lost by only one goal to Silver twice.
The departure of the district’s perennial powerhouse, Albuquerque Academy, will not guarantee a step up in the rankings for the Eagles, O’Neill said.
“I haven’t heard much about Santa Theresa (the District 3-4A newcomers), but what I have heard is that they are pretty good,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to underestimate them.”
Underestimating its opponents was a problem O’Neill said the team had last year.
“We used to go into games saying, ‘Oh we can beat these guys.’ Then we would lose,” O’Neill recalled. “We were way too overconfident. We have to respect every team we play.”
The Eagles will have to make the most of their senior leadership this season. There are nine seniors on the squad this season — Abraham Anderson, Brandon Boggs, Vincent Carrejo, Alex Ortiz, A.J. Garley, Carlos Marquez, Kyle Merrell, Sammy Sabinas and Enrique Trujillo.
Though the positions have not been decided yet, Boggs and Trujillo, or junior Jason Monceballez, will be counted on for most of the goal-scoring up front.
“Boggs is our senior leader on the team this year,” O’Neill said. “He really leads this team by example. All three of them are going to be integral to us putting the ball in the net.”
Trying to keep the ball out of the net is goalkeeper A.J. Garley. Last year, Garley had the daunting task of trying to fill the enormous gap left by All-State keeper Beto Sanchez. The experience he gained last year helped, but there is always room for improvement.
“He just needs to gain some aggression and experience, and he’ll be great this year,” O’Neill said of Garley.
Helping Garley on defense is Carlos Marquez, who O’Neill said is a versatile player.
“(Marquez) is one of the players who could easily double as a midfielder,” O’Neill said. “He has good touch on the ball and will help out a lot in either position.”
In pre-season practice, the Eagles have been focusing on playing together as a team — something O’Neill said needs to be the team’s biggest strength.
“We don’t have any players right now who can carry this team on their back,” he said. “We will have to play and think as a team on the field.”
The Eagles will be busy once the season starts, playing four games in eight days. The Eagles open the season with a home game against St. Michael’s at 11 a.m. on Saturday. They travel for a game against West Mesa on Tuesday and return home to face Gallup on Thursday. They finish out the stretch with a game at Las Vegas Robertson on Saturday, Aug. 31.