So far, the Stillwater boys have achieved an astonishing 19-0-0 record this season. They have won every game in the regular season as well as the three-game section finals, culminating in an 85th-minute goal to win 2-1 over North St. Paul who had equalized just ten minutes before.
Smothers has been the head coach of the Stillwater boys’ team for four seasons, taking over in 2013 from longtime coach Phil Johnson. Johnson led the Ponies for 20 years, winning two state titles in the process and making several appearances in the state tournament. Smothers came to Stillwater after having coached at St. Louis Park High School as well as the St. Croix Soccer Club known as “Sporting St. Croix.”
Smothers spoke regularly to Phil during his first season and said Johnson was very helpful, making sure Smothers had all the information needed to have a successful tenure. Since then, Johnson has been more removed. He still comes to games, and was at Stillwater’s section final, but has been traveling around the state seeing “as much high school soccer as he can,” according to Smothers.
After going undefeated in regular season play last year, including seven draws and two out-of-state losses (both in Wisconsin), Smothers knew Stillwater could have a good season this year. Still, no one anticipated winning every game.
The reason for the success? According to Smothers, it’s simple: the team was young last season, predominantly sophomores, juniors, and freshman, and the maturation of the players across the board has helped the team enormously. The seven draws were caused by missing chances to score and conceding late goals, something the Ponies have avoided this season.
Smothers praised his players, saying their maturity as people and players allowed the team to focus on weaknesses in the early season and make adjustments in-game. In addition, Stillwater gained three new players in the offseason, which has helped shore up the team and contribute to the success. “Their maturity has really changed the approach we take to practice and the approach we take to games,” Smothers said.
When asked what the biggest thing the team has done to be so formidable, Smothers said it was very basic: Stillwater is scoring more goals than in the past and conceding fewer. Smothers also praised the development the players had in the offseason. Of the 22 players on the roster, 19 played at the club level in the past year.
As Smothers put it, “When the players get to Stillwater, my job is simple. Put them in the right place and get them game time.” He commented how helpful having such a successful program as Sporting St. Croix was. “[Sporting St. Croix] does a great job of developing players and getting them ready to contribute to a high school program,” Smothers said.
Looking forward, success is not just in Stillwater’s future, but it is the expectation in the community and school. While no one can guarantee another undefeated season, Stillwater should be a tough team for the foreseeable future. Smothers said: “we’re losing many seniors, but we have a great core of young players and we should be challenging for a section title next year.”
Smothers will be encouraged by the fact that, while his top two goal scorers (Miguel Caravais and Kohei Adams) are seniors, the next top scorer is a sophomore, Spencer Scott, who has 14 goals in 18 games.
In the Ponies’ immediate future is the Minnesota State Tournament, a single-elimination bid among the winners of the section tournaments. Minnesota takes the 65 schools with the highest enrollment and from them creates the AA class, broken up into eight sections. Each section has a three-game tournament to determine its winner, and those eight schools are the pool for the state tournament.
The first round of games in the tournament is this week, on Tuesday through Thursday, with the next round starting early next week. The pacing of the tournament is roughly the same as the regular season: a game every three or four days. Often in the regular season, teams will play three games per week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. This constitutes a significant time commitment for both coaches and players.
“There are some teams we’ve never seen before… They’re in the tournament, but we’ve never seen them and don’t know what to expect… That’s that joy of high school soccer – that it’s an unknown; who knows what’s coming?”
Smothers is looking forward to the tournament. “There are some solid opponents, Wayzata, Edina, that we’ve seen even if we haven’t played, we’ve seen them. We know roughly what to expect in terms of style from them. There are some teams we’ve never seen before; Moorhead is in the tournament this year, Burnsville is a Cities team that I’ve never seen, and Owatonna coming from down south. They’re in the tournament, but we’ve never seen them and don’t know what to expect; we could see a 4-3-3, or a 4-4-2 diamond midfield, or maybe someone is playing sweeper with an offside trap. That’s that joy of high school soccer–that it’s an unknown; who knows what’s coming?”
Smothers said of course Stillwater would like to win the state tournament. “We’ve had an exceptional regular season, but we’re coming out of a tough section with North St. Paul, and we’ve got lots of confidence. We’re excited.” The effort begins on Wednesday at 7:30 pm at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School when the Ponies take on Mounds View, whom Stillwater defeated 6-0 on September 29 this season.
Moving forward, Smothers looks to maintain the consistency of success that Phil Johnson laid out. He’s excited to continue to lead Stillwater soccer, and foresees a bright future.