The Gainesville Leopards soccer team had a historic season last year, claiming a district title on the way to a 13-6-2 record.
And while the Leopards are already off to an immaculate 5-0 start to the season, there is no denying the hole that was left in the team with the graduation of Ivan Franco.
Head coach Andrew Kimmel said the team is missing more than just Franco’s elite scoring touch.
“You can’t you cannot replace an Ivan,” Kimmel said. “In fact, what I would say this year, what we are missing other than his talent is his leadership. I’ve had a really hard time picking who to put the captain’s band on. He was such a leader. He was another kind of leader that wouldn’t just bark orders. He’s the kind of guy that would say follow my example because he did put in the work.”
The Leopards are coming off hosting their first-ever tournament and the Leopards came away with three victories over Graham, Burkburnett and Paris.
Kimmel said it was huge to be able to win their first home tournament in school history.
“It was big to keep that home tournament trophy,” Kimmel said. “We gave up one goal to Paris and that was in the final game. Paris is the real deal. They’ve won their district I think the last five years running, if not six. So they’re good competition. And it showed in the game.”
The Leopards defeated Paris 5-4 in penalty kicks and Kimmel said that experience could pay dividends in the playoffs.
“It’s huge to get it all year,” Kimmel said. “Sometimes we’ll do that with teams after a game. We’ve done that with several teams. You can’t really generate the same kind of atmosphere. But it is good for practice.”
The Leopards will still roll out a 3-5-2 formation and for the time being, Kimmel said he doesn’t plan on changing too much from last season.
However, he is still tinkering with lineups and will occasionally try some different defensive looks.
“We went up on Graham and I put four in the back, so there’s some things within the game itself you can change to a different formation to just to see how we would react,” Kimmel said. “If we go up by one goal, I may choose to put an extra defender in the back just to kind of shore up the defense.”
To say that the Leopards lost a heartbreaking game in the playoffs to Life Oak Cliff would be an understatement.
Both teams were tied at 1-1 before Life Oak Cliff pulled off the stunning conclusion to the game. Life Oak Cliff scored with two seconds left in the game from close to midfield, sending the Leopards into an overwhelming sadness.
But Kimmel and the Leopards aren’t hiding from the pain of defeat this season.
There is a :02 on the shoulders of the Leopards’ practice shirts as a stark reminder of how close they came to extending their season.
“So every time you look at the back of one of our players’ shirts, it reminds you two seconds,” Kimmel said. “At first, the players said it wasn’t cool and I just explained to the guys, look this is motivation. I want you to remember how that felt. We had two seconds we needed to survive but we couldn’t make it happen.”
Patrick Hayslip can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PatrickHayslip