After a painfully early 2017 exit, J.J. Pearce is poised for a prolonged playoff run.
For almost three months, the J.J. Pearce Mustangs boys’ soccer team has done just about everything imaginable to eradicate the memory of last season’s first-round playoff exit.
Sean Dowlatshahi’s program captured two tournaments, beat the rest of its non-district foes, then fashioned a remarkable 12-0-2 run in district en route to the 9-6A crown. Pearce also has garnered all sorts of notoriety, such as a No. 5 ranking in the MaxPreps state poll and the No. 16 spot nationally on the Top Drawer Soccer.com Winter 2018 FAB 50 High School Soccer Team Rankings. The Mustangs went through all of that to reach this moment — the Dallas Morning News’ top-ranked 6A team opens the playoffs against Rowlett at 7:30 p.m.Thursday at Tom Kimbrough Stadium in Murphy.
In his 15th season, the Pearce coach believes his undefeated 22-0-4 bunch is prepared to keep things rolling.
“We have to keep the mentality that we’re not losing our next game,” Dowlatshahi said. “We have a bullseye on our back now for everyone. Some coaches think it’s OK to lose a game so that your team knows how it feels. But with our district, we didn’t have that luxury. And I’m not worried that we didn’t lose because we’ve had so many tough games. When we’ve been challenged, we’ve responded.
“We know it doesn’t matter what we’ve done,” he continued. “We’re aggressive, we’re deep and we’re versatile.”
Dowlatshahi’s confidence is understandable. Besides not dropping a game in a district featuring the past two state champions (Coppell in 2016 and Jesuit last season), the Mustangs have averaged 3.1 goals a game, led by senior striker Kent Malloy’s 16 goals and seven assists and senior midfielder Connor Jones’ 13 goals and 22 helpers. Senior forward Cole Martin has been on a tear recently, as seven of his 11 goals and all seven of his assists have come in district while junior midfielder Adrian Munoz has seven scores and six helpers.
Defensively the Mustangs have been just as good, allowing 1.1 goals a game. Center backs Nick Kazanas and Nathan Jackson have anchored a back line featuring Braulio Cuadra, Steven Vik and Nick Orlich that has kept the action for keepers Gino Garcia, Clay Servin and Alex Duarte to a minimum, as evidenced by nine clean sheets.
In putting together a spectacular season, Jones has been particularly driven by Pearce’s 2-0 playoff loss in 2017 to Sachse. With his team trailing 1-0, Jones earned a penalty kick but had his effort saved by Sachse keeper Fidel Gutierrez. As Dowlatshahi noted, Pearce didn’t respond after the penalty despite having plenty of time to notch an equalizer.
Jones is eager to author a much different playoff story for the Mustangs.
“I’m very excited,” the senior tri-captain said. “I’m ready for the playoffs and [the idea of] redemption is big. We want more than just the first round. A lot more. The playoffs have so much more energy and pressure. Non-district and district are more about getting your bearings so you’re ready for the playoffs. We have gotten better all year and have a chance to win. Now we need to keep fighting to the end.”
That battling spirit has been on display throughout the 2018 campaign. Pearce tied the season opener with a dramatic goal in the last 10 seconds, trailed in its first four district games and recently needed a last-minute goal from Jones to beat W.T. White. Jackson, another senior captain, said it’s up to him and the other leaders to make sure those who weren’t on the varsity last year know what’s expected with everything on the line for each game.
“I feel we’re upholding a winning tradition for our soccer program,” Jackson, who notched the game-winning goal at Coppell, said. “This year we’ve done what we could to live up to what we’re able to do. I tell the younger players to play like I know they can play, that we need everyone to play well to win. The younger guys need to know they’re our equivalent — we’re all in it together.”
Dowlatshahi emphasized that Pearce will need a total team effort to knock off Rowlett. The Eagles went 10-8-2 for the season, including 6-6 in district, but the fourth-place team out of 10-6A may be getting hot at just the right time. A Rowlett club dominated by underclassmen won four of its last six to reach the postseason, paced by sophomore forward Kevin Adolfo’s school-record 22 goals and six assists. Ian Ellis is a 6-2 center back who works with sweeper Carson Prestridge in front of Carson’s brother, keeper Mason Prestridge. Gabriel Sanchez and Moises Ramirez patrol the midfield to create chances for Adolfo.
Clark McMurtray, who has amassed a record of 250-125-12 as Rowlett’s coach the past 16 seasons, has led Rowlett to 13 straight winning seasons and 11 straight playoff appearances. He sees a lot of the 2017 Pearce club — capable of thrilling highs and agonizing lows — in his current Eagles squad.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this year, which you get with a team as young as this one,” McMurtay said while scouting Pearce’s 4-0 win in the district finale at Skyline last Friday. “We start five sophomores and two freshmen so we’re going to be inconsistent. But we also move the ball well and we make a lot of good passes and runs. We’ve struggled occasionally to finish, which is expected of a young team.”
In a winner-take-all situation, Jackson stressed that Pearce must impose its will early against Rowlett. Dowlatshahi said the Mustangs can’t afford to let off the gas as they have occasionally this year, but added that he knows his team is ready to go.
“Victory brings complacency, and we need to be a little less sloppy at times,” he said. “We need to receive the ball better and we need to finish better. But one of this team’s many strengths is persistence. They just keep coming at you. These guys are relaxed before and after games but they all work so hard and expect that of each other. We can’t work this hard to come up short of what we want.”
Contributed by Sam Jackson
Photo credit: Albert Pena, G3 Photography