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Despite being plopped in the same district as defending state champion Coppell and perennial playoff powerhouse Jesuit, the J.J. Pearce boys’ soccer team enters the second half of 9-6A play in excellent shape to secure a postseason berth.

Coppell and Jesuit lead the league with matching 6-0-1 marks, and the Mustangs hold sole possession of third place at 4-3. Skyline and W.T. White share fourth place at 3-4, but only the top four teams from each district advance to the playoffs.

For the season, Pearce boasts an 8-4-1 record.

Mustangs coach Sean Dowlatshahi has been impressed with what he’s seen from his team, which opens the second half of district Friday at home against Richardson. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

“A long time ago I decided not to project what I thought we would do, but one thing we’re doing is constantly improving,” Coach Dowlatshahi said Thursday. “Lots of guys are stepping up and we seem to be finding ourselves. We have real good chemistry; we don’t have guys with individual agendas. They understand that they have to be flexible and work. A few have stayed in their old positions but some other guys are doing very different things and excelling. We also have a bunch of senior leadership and enough other guys with varsity experience to show the others what it takes to compete at this level.

“They all have high standards and make the extra effort for each other.”

Perhaps the best thing about facing quality competition is that the Mustangs cannot afford to take a night off or they will pay. Dowlatshahi favors a pressing, attacking formation, anchored by three defenders so that the offense can ask more questions of opposing defenses. When it’s worked, Pearce has been stellar as was the case in a 6-0 pasting of Berkner, a 4-2 defeat of Lake Highlands and even a 2-1 win against W.T. White.

But the three league setbacks—a 3-1 loss at Coppell and matching 2-1 defeats to Jesuit and Skyline—have proved Pearce is far from a finished product.

“We play in an aggressive formation that puts a lot of responsibility on guys to show up for each other,” Dowlatshahi said. “I like to play with three in the back, and all of our center backs have enough speed to cover. We get into trouble when we start losing the midfield, which we did against Coppell and eventually did against Jesuit and Skyline. We got it back against White. But we must mentally be on all the time. That was the lesson Tuesday against Skyline.”

The defeat at Skyline marked the third time this season the Mustangs have taken a lead on an opponent but failed to seal the deal. Dowlatshahi admits the game against the Raiders in which Skyline scored the winner with 13 seconds left—not to mention the squandered 1-0 advantage on the road against the state champion Cowboys—served as excellent teaching moments.

“As long as everyone continues to improve and take it to a new gear, we’ll be OK,” Dowlatshahi noted. “We learned we can’t just turn it on and off. We need to be able to downshift and upshift. That’s what Coppell has that we need to copy. They stay in one gear and play at a consistent level but have the ability to upshift when they need more.”

To reach the playoff promised land, Dowlatshahi stressed focus on a singular objective, something the Mustangs demonstrated in the 1-0 victory at Richardson in the district opener.

“The number one goal for the second half of the season is clean sheets,” he said. “That’s what I want us to go out and do every game the rest of the year.”

photo credit: Denise Brubaker