Harlem High School's soccer team had plenty in common with opponent Thomson in last week's season opener.
The teams, both nicknamed Bulldogs, are also underdogs - looking to escape the shadow of Columbia County prep powerhouses Greenbrier and Lakeside.
Thomson competes in Region 3-AAAA, the domain ruled ruthlessly by the Panthers and Wolfpack. Greenbrier claimed region crowns from 1996-98, and Lakeside has taken titles the past three years.
"Greenbrier and Lakeside are really tough," said Thomson coach Evan Johns, who led his Bulldogs to their first state playoff appearance last season, while Harlem continues to struggle.
Harlem plays in Region 3-AAA, one classification lower than Thomson. Harlem last won a region championship in 1995; current coach George Berry took over the program for the 1996 season. Then, Greenbrier opened in the fall of '96 and drained Harlem's talent pool.
Berry previously had been the soccer coach at Harlem Middle School, where he helped lay the foundation for Harlem High's region title in '95.
Since Berry began coaching at the high school, the middle school has had four soccer coaches. Along with the instability inherent with the constant changing of coaches, each had limited knowledge of the sport.
As a result, Berry found himself having to teach his high school players fundamental skills, placing Harlem a step behind Columbia County counterparts Lakeside and Greenbrier. And Evans High School fields a perennially strong boys' soccer team.
But Harlem appears to be on the verge of moving up the ladder.
The team posted a 9-8 record in 2001, its first winning season under Berry. Harlem finished third in the region and just missed a Class AAA state playoff berth, as only the top two teams advance.
"The seniors started something good last year, and we have some true senior leaders this season," Berry said.
Center midfielder Lucas Frentzel and sweeper Brad Akins are two seniors who Berry cited as showing strong off-season work habits. Each is a four-year member of the varsity squad, as is left fullback Richard Harmer.
Harmer displayed a solid left foot during Tuesday's Thomson game, and despite a 5-2 overtime loss, Harlem's new-look defense matched well with Thomson's speedy strikers.
"I'm not disappointed at all. They played the game I'm teaching them," Berry said. "They don't need to work on a whole lot. The ball management was not too bad, but we need a little more help in the passing lanes. I think we learned a great deal."
D.J. Wiltshire has moved from striker to stopper this season, and his defensive debut impressed Thomson's Johns.
"They had a stopper back there who was preventing those through passes we've been working on," he said.
At right fullback, senior Eddie Shouse drew praise for his hustling play. "Eddie has really come a long way, and he's worked really hard at it," Berry said. "His skills have improved and he's into the game mentally."
Lucas Frentzel didn't need a pat on the back - he covered every inch of the pitch in the opener and asserted himself as Harlem's most complete player.
Frentzel's younger brother, Emery, along with Ruben Valentin, Brett Neven and Eric Grayson spearhead the offensive attack. Neven and Valentin scored Tuesday against Thomson.
Another plus for Harlem is the goalkeeper position - last season, Berry had to search for a starting keeper, but in 2002 he has two to consider. Bradley Webb opened the season in goal, and David Dye was the backup.
Harlem begins its region schedule with a match at Lucy C. Laney High School on March 5. Until then, the team is playing a tough nonregion slate, by design.
"I schedule hard games so we'll be ready to play Richmond and Westside (the top two Region 3-AAA foes)," Berry said. "Trying to win the region championship is the goal every year for us. These guys want to leave a legacy. We'll try to improve and hope everybody else gets down while we come up."
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