Lakewood soccer turns adversity into a team-building experience

Lakewood coach Jeremiah Wohlgemuth keeps score during a shooting drill at practice. - Travis Sherer
Lakewood coach Jeremiah Wohlgemuth keeps score during a shooting drill at practice.
— image credit: Travis Sherer

LAKEWOOD — Cougars girls soccer coach Jeremiah Wohlgemuth can still remember Nov. 2, 2009 distinctly.

“Like yesterday,” he said. “I was just sitting in my (class) room, in front of 11 girls and we started crying.”

It was then that the Cougars found out that seven of their teammates, including six starters, wouldn’t be joining them on their quest for a state berth due to breaking team rules.

“There was some hurt feelings and some anger, but we had to keep going,” Wohlgemuth said.

Of course, the Cougars went on to make the first state appearance and win the first state playoff game in program history.

“It was really hard to watch,” said senior Mariah Smith, was one of the seven who were forced to watch their teammates from the stands of every playoff match last season. “We all cried after every game.”

In a culture where there is more interest in scandal than picking up the pieces, this is where the story would typically end.

But fast forward eight months and it was time for soccer tryouts again. One by one, Wohlgemuth heard that four of those players — Smith, Britney Martin, Arianna Barrio and Alisha Stott — chose to rededicate themselves to enjoy the success that they saw their teammates have a year ago.

“I told them that it wasn’t going to be easy to regain everybody’s trust,” he said. “But I was behind them, and we all had our core covenants and went from there.”

The entire team pledged themselves to three ideals: enthusiasm, engagement and unity.

Turns out, while the Cougars have lived those three ideals this year, it is in unity they excelled.

“If anything, this has all brought us closer,” said Martin, a junior. “We’re all more protective of each other and making sure we’re all doing the right thing.”

Oddly enough, out of this shared experience, Lakewood soccer has developed the family atmosphere that he hoped he’d have over time.

“It takes a while to build that kind of tradition,” said Wohlgemuth, now in his second year as manager. “If you look at our cross country program, coach (Jeff) Sowards has developed that.”

At Cougars cross country meets and practices, alumni can frequently be found helping the younger runners while training themselves.

That typically comes with years of success, or it can come out of an experience like this — or both.

While rebuilding team chemistry this season — which Wohlgemuth said is now at an all-time best — the Cougars also finished their best regular season with a 17-0-1 record and were in a position to win their first district championship, and qualified for a second trip to state.

With any difficult situation in sports, winning almost always helps, but Wohlgemuth said that at the beginning of the season despite early wins, he didn’t see the kind of unified trust that his players now show.

It wasn’t until four or five matches into the season, when faced with difficult opponents in King’s, Cedarcrest and Granite Falls, did they come together for good.

“After beating those teams pretty well, we noticed something had really changed,” he said.

It happened just in time for Lakewood to accomplish something it had never done before, beat defending state champ Archbishop Murphy. It was then that the Cougars showed how important team work is to their particular style of play, which depends on being in the right position defensively at all times.

“Trust is so important in sports because if you don’t trust a teammate, on or off the field, it’s going to affect your play,” he said.

It’s also made Lakewood a more complete team, as many of those players who stepped in during last year’s playoff run came back to challenge for a top spot in tryouts.

“Morgan Rettig is a perfect example of that,” he said. “She had a great finish last year for us, and that created more competition during practice.”

If defense translates to team trust for the Cougars, statistics such as only seven goals allowed this season and 11 shutouts tell anybody all they really want to know about how tight these Cougars are with each other.

And that spells trouble for opponents, as a year later and the Cougars are back to state, and no longer separated.

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