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Conks get confidence boost in return to state | High School Soccer

Senior Garret Rudolph helped lead the Kentwood soccer team to an SPSL 4A North division crown and state tournament birth. - Eric Mandel, The Reporter
Senior Garret Rudolph helped lead the Kentwood soccer team to an SPSL 4A North division crown and state tournament birth.
— image credit: Eric Mandel, The Reporter

There’s a healthy teeter-totter of perspective on the Kentwood soccer team. On one side, there’s head coach Aaron Radford, who, in his ninth year, has led his athletes to third place finishes in state twice. He never enters a game feeling confident or at ease with how his squad is playing.

The other side features a group of Conks teenagers, who sprinted into the first round of the state tournament as optimistic underdogs that shocked the conference with consistent winning. And then winning some more.

“Bradford’s attitude is smart – having that slice of humble pie,” said senior center midfielder Garrett Rudolph. “I think that attitude balances out well with that attitude of ‘we’re gonna win.’”

The expectations for the 2014 Conks team were limited. Stay near the top and hope for a state birth. Yet, after winning the North division with an 11-2-3 record, Kentwood capped its improbable run with the 4A West Central District title, shutting out both Gig Harbor and Skyview, 1-0, during district tournament play on May 15th and 17th, respectively.

The Conks also defeated Garfield 1-0 in the first round of the single elimination state tournament on Tuesday. The win means a place in the final eight. The time and place are yet to be determined.

The Conks failed to make the postseason in 2013, let alone prime themselves for a state run. But the veteran group, which consists of 10 seniors, has found cohesiveness to be key. Rudolph said this is the most fun team he’s ever played on.

“Even if you’ve got the best players around the state, what will carry a team to state is chemistry; how long can you deal which each other,” Rudolph said.

Radford was not so convinced early on, but has been amazed by his team’s drive to succeed.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Radford said. “I thought back to where we were in the beginning of March… I was optimistic that if we could play well and be a good united team, we could make things happen.”

Brandyn Bangsund led the Conquerors’ offense this season, notching 12 goals and six assists, while Mason Rudolph added 11 goals and dished an assist. Goalie Admir Kucalovic allowed only 12 goals in 18 games.

“I think I have the best goalkeeper in the state,” Radford said. “I know I might be a little biased.”

The Conks also finished with some impressive team numbers, outscoring opponents 37-12, with 11 shutouts.

But it wasn’t always pretty.

After flying to a 9-0-2 start, the group lost back-to-back matches against the division’s top teams, Tahoma and Thomas Jefferson, and then tied Mount Rainier. It forced the squad into must-win matchups to close out the regular season.

Then came district play against a strong Gig Harbor group and a Skyview team that Radford believed to be the best of the bunch.

“Getting two wins was above my expectations,” Radford said. “I was thinking a win and maybe a tie. I’m very, very pleased with the way things have played out.”

Kentwood has never won a soccer state title, though they won the league title in 2011 and finished third in state that year.

While the coach and outsiders didn’t expect greatness coming into the season, Rudolph said he had his sights set high from the start.

“I was never one that was skeptical about our abilities,” said Rudolph, who was a freshman on the 2011 state placing team. “I expected us to go even farther than we are. I expect us to win this thing.”

Radford knows his group might be considered an underdog in the state tournament filled with schools familiar with soccer success, such as Snohomish and Central Valley. But he also didn’t think anyone would look past them, either. Enough so that he entered Tuesday’s state matchup feeling optimistic. Well, maybe cautiously optimism.

“These guys have made me more and more confident because they keep coming through,” Radford said. “They are starting to sway me a little bit, but I don’t think I’ll ever walk into a playoff match and think nobody can touch us.”

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