Prep boys soccer: Tumwater gelling at right time with new group


ROCHESTER — There’s a wide-range of soccer backgrounds on Tumwater High School’s boys soccer team.

From club to rec to just high school, then there’s players that are on U15 or U18 teams, it has been a season of developing cohesion and figuring out different personalities plus play styles.

At the start, it was not smooth sailing for the Thunderbirds.

“Beginning of the season it was hard,” striker Dylan Stevens bluntly put it. “Play blind balls, no one knows. It has been a mission, but now we’re on point.”

You can say that again.

Tumwater is in the midst of a three-game winning streak against Evergreen Conference foes and three of its last four matches overall, the latest a 4-1 victory over Rochester on Tuesday night in a key contest.

The win keeps the Thunderbirds (5-3-1, 5-1 EvCo) a game behind W.F. West in the standings and in solo second. Stevens netted a hat trick, scoring in the 35th minute to break a 1-1 tie and added second half goals in the 44th and 76th minute.

Gavin Cuoio lit up the scoreboard in the 11th minute on a penalty kick for Tumwater.

After struggling to finish chances early in the season, Stevens has constantly been able to find the back of the net over the last couple of weeks.

“I’ve been focusing on finishing,” the junior said. “Once we played that first through ball, we knew it was going to work. We kept pounding the rock down the middle.”

Early training seasons in February featured some mistakes. Tumwater, coming off a state tournament trip, knew this spring would be different with just four varsity contributors back in the fold.

There were tempered expectations.

“We know we can play well,” senior defender Jacob Kaikkonen said. “We can just rally, it is all about rallying.”

A 4-1 loss to Olympia and a 2-2 draw against North Thurston were followed by back-to-back 3-1 verdicts over Centralia and Black Hills at home for Tumwater.

Then came a let-down match.

W.F. West controlled the match from the start and on its home grass field, shutout the Thunderbirds 4-0. The bus ride back home featured a lot of talking and trying to figure out a solution to what unfolded before their eyes.

“It was definitely a slap in the face,” Stevens said. “Warm-up was terrible, trying to get each other up, but it wasn’t there. We said ‘That’s not happening anymore.’”

Coach John Hayes’ squad didn’t have much time for fixing. Roughly 48 hours later, Tumwater had a date with Shelton, who took the Bearcats to penalty kicks earlier in March.

“We came out against W.F. West soft and slow,” Hayes said. “I talked to them like ‘Guys, we’ve got a gauntlet.’ I thought that once they got in and playing the game, they’ll figure it out. That’s the beauty of high school soccer.”

What followed is what players and coaches called the turning point.

The Thunderbirds walloped Shelton 6-0 and began to gel as one unit. Passes were crisp, through balls were getting into the teeth of the opposition and the backline was fortifying.

Beating Aberdeen 4-3 in penalty kicks after giving up the game-tying goal in the waning seconds of the second half showed Hayes the mental fortitude of his group that has just two seniors and a boatload of juniors.

“You could see it started to click, they got things done,” Hayes said. “They know we still (have) room to grow. No one is perfect in this game. Learn from your mistakes and make the next play better.”

Stevens has been more than happy with how the last three league matches have gone. Tumwater’s lone loss in the stretch was a non-league setback to Evergreen, 4-2.

“It lit a fire under us,” Stevens said. “We’re putting goals in the back of the net.”

Rochester (4-4, 3-2) tied the game with a penalty kick of its own in the 23rd minute by Justin Gochez. The Warriors had numerous chances to take the lead in the first half and find an equalizer in the final 40 minutes.

Coach Matt Ashton summed up the disappointment as having too many “mental mistakes.”

“It is a game we gave away tonight,” Ashton added. “Mentally, we just didn’t click.”

This week kicked off an important one for Rochester as it heads to Chehalis to battle W.F. West on Friday. For a squad still learning how to win after a couple down years, Ashton believes the recipe is simple.

“We have to reinforce the things they did (well), look at things we made mistakes on and just try to improve,” he said. “We can go watch some game film and go from there.”

Tumwater thought getting back to Renton for the 2A state tournament was a possibility, but not the primary goal. With its recent play, it has been brought to the forefront with raised eyebrows.

“We just build each other up and it builds everyone’s confidence,” Kaikkonen said.