Berkmar High School is not used to the heights it is seeing this season in boys soccer.
The Patriots are 9-1-1 and ranked No. 4 in the state in Class AAAAA. They have defeated soccer heavyweights Brookwood and Parkview in the same season — nobody is sure that’s ever happened before.
The senior-laden team, which works out shoulder-to-shoulder with its high-energy head coach, is undefeated in Region 8-AAAAA and has the inside track on reaching the state playoffs for the first time in two decades.
Of the Patriots’ six remaining games, four are against region opponents, and three of those foes have won one or fewer league games.
As spectacular as Berkmar’s run has been, coach Tracy Crouch, who coached Parkview to the 2005 state championship, was quoting a famous college football coach Monday afternoon as a measure of caution.
“Joe Paterno said, ‘Press is like poison. It can only hurt you if you swallow it,'" he said. “That’s my philosophy. … We don’t take too much time dwelling on those stats and rankings.”
Still, Crouch said the taste of success has been sweet for Berkmar this season. That’s particularly true of last Friday’s 4-3 win in penalty kicks at Brookwood. It’s been 22 year since that last happened.
The Patriots trailed 3-0, and after a rousing halftime speech by Crouch, roared back to tie the game and force a shootout. A made PK by Berkmar’s 11th shooter and the subsequent save by goalkeeper Jonathon Caballero resulted in the emotional win. Caballero made two saves in the shootout and was named the game’s “Man of the Match."
The Patriots celebrated the victory once they returned to Berkmar with a “champagne” shower celebration in the locker room with non-alcoholic bubbly.
“That was literally the most exciting game I’ve ever been part of in my 17 years of coaching. That’s including the state championship,” Crouch said. “Being down 3-0 and coming back like we did. It was unbelievable. That’s the definition of character and determination.”
Crouch, in his second year as Berkmar’s boys coach, is quick to deflect credit for the successes. He says assistant coaches William Torres and Jeff Welp are “wizards when it comes to tactics.” And his seniors are a “really special group who want to leave a legacy for the younger players.”
Crouch said all of the seniors have stood out: defensemen Christian Chirinos, Pedro Santizo, Andy Rubalcava and Dylan Earnhardt; midfielders Jose Salmeron, Luis Rodriguez and Kwadwo Twumasi; forwards Ernesto Cardenas, Juan Carlos Diaz, Martin Lugo, Fredrico DeAranburu and Rene Acosta; and Caballero, the goalkeeper.
Acosta leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and four assists, Lugo has 11 goals and four assists, and Cardenas has eight goals and four assists.
For sure, Crouch has had an impact, too, especially in making his players stronger, better conditioned and tougher.
“I’m a big proponent of conditioning and weight training. I’m in the weight room with them. I’m running with them around town,” said Crouch, 39, a former player at Parkview and Georgia State. “I don’t ask the boys to do anything that I haven’t done myself, or aren’t willing to do.”
As good as Berkmar’s prospects look for reaching the state playoffs, Crouch isn’t taking anything for granted. It’s a tought region, he says, and the team needs to remain focussed.
“We have a lot of talent, but talent alone doesn’t win games,” he said. “All of the games matter. Every game has to be played like it’s a state championship game.”
Next up for Berkmar is a match tonight at Central Gwinnett.