GARDNER — Isaac Van Blaricom thought those pre-state championship T-shirts printed for the PikeView boys soccer team last season were a waste of money.
“Yeah, all season our coaches were telling us we are going to the state tournament, we are going to win states this year and we thought it was a joke,” said Van Blaricom, a senior, who leads the Panthers with 33 goals and 11 assists this season. “We had shirts made and everything and we didn’t think we were going to be able to do it.
“Then we made it to the state finals and there we were and we did it. I don’t think I grasped the win until probably a couple of weeks after and it finally hit me, I was like ‘Wow, we really did do it.’”
Now, they can do it again.
“I think we have to stay focused and work hard,” said PikeView junior Hunter Klein said, who is third on the Panthers with 11 goals. “Obviously from last year and winning it all, we had a lot of pressure on us to get back to this point. It has been a fun time, tough, but we are happy we are here.”
Definitely. PikeView (18-1-1), which won the school’s first-ever state championship last year by defeating East Fairmont in the finals, will play tradition-rich Charleston Catholic (19-1-1) on Friday in the Class AA/A semifinals in Beckley at around 11:30 a.m.
PikeView’s lone loss this season was a 1-0 decision at Charleston Catholic.
“I am glad we get to play Charleston Catholic this year,” said Klein, whose Panthers also tied Robert C. Byrd 1-1, the same team PikeView defeated last season in the semifinals. “Last year I was hoping to play them in the state semifinal, but it didn’t work out. This year it will be a good test and I think whoever wins this game will have the state championship.”
Getting there will be a challenge. The winner faces either Grafton (15-5-4) or Weir (16-0-2) in the finals on Saturday at 10.
“They have bonded as a team, it is almost like it was last year,” said PikeView second year boys coach Bill Hopkins. “There was a certain point in the season, and Coach (Corbett) Calfee and I talked about it, where it was almost like you saw the transition happen to where they just started becoming a team, started playing better, started moving better and we have seen the same transition this year so we are very optimistic.”
In that loss to Charleston Catholic, the Panthers played without Van Blaricom, who missed some action after being diagnosed with a heart murmur that has since cleared up, while Klein missed half the game. Still, the Panthers lost by just one goal.
“Our defense was fantastic, we gave up a goal, a little cheapie,” Hopkins said. “They are hard to score on, our guys are just fantastic in the back, but up front we are a totally different team than we were when we played them.
“We throw Hunter and Isaac in healthy, our movement is much better, we are taking good quality shots instead of just shots and it had just made a tremendous difference. I feel a lot more confident going into the game on Friday than I would have a month ago.”
He felt confident enough prior to the season to print out new shirts, but didn’t draw the same reaction as last year when his own team didn’t seem to believe.
“That was a shock, I think it surprised the boys, they didn’t believe the shirts and this year we have got those shirts again,” said Hopkins, whose Panthers have also received 16 goals from Seth Wood and 10 by Alec White. “It talks about two rings instead of one and we have got the first ring and the second ring is what we are shooting for.
“The shirts are designed with two rings on the front, one has a check mark, one has a question mark. On the back its says ‘We answer the question November 8.’ That is the state championship game.”
PikeView has a solid collection of athletes on its side of the pitch, led up top by Van Blaricom, Wood and Hopkins’ son, Blake. Klein, White and Ben Ellis roam the midfield, while the defense is led by Jason Weitzel, Gene Weatherly, Liam Deason and Joe Bailey. The bench is paced by seniors Nick Coker and Isaac Harrison.
“It is a lot of fun, we have a great group of boys, they are not just talented, they are just a great group of guys,” Hopkins said. “They enjoy each other at practice, they enjoy each other on the field and they are fun to be around so it is a lot of fun.”
The last line of defense is Austin Cordell, a talented baseball player, who is also quite the goalkeeper on the pitch.
“Austin is a great athlete, he wants to play baseball in college,” Hopkins said. “From a soccer standpoint, that is a shame, he could play big-boy college goalie, like Division I in my opinion. He just loves baseball.
“He is 6-foot-3, a great wingspan, great speed and quickness, great hand-eye coordination, it makes you awful comfortable when he is sitting back there.”
Both Van Blaricom and Klein feel like this collection of Panthers — which lost a pair of seniors to graduation — is better than last year’s state champions.
“I would say we are a lot better, a lot more prepared coming into the state tournament this year than we were last year,” said Van Blaricom, who missed most of last season with injury, although he was able to play in the postseason. “We practice harder, we play as a team better, last year we didn’t think we could do it and this year we think we can do it.”
Hopkins didn’t tell the players, but he thought the Panthers were talented and experienced enough to win every game. Winning the final two is all that matters now.
“They know what is set before them, they have lost one, tied one, they have won all the rest.” Hopkins said. “We thought before the season began that we had a chance to go undefeated, don’t know if the boys knew that, but coach and I thought we could and they have come pretty darn close. We are just really pleased with where they are at.”
The same went for last year, and the Panthers won it all.
“When the first whistle sounds we will be ready to go, past rings, wins and losses don’t matter at that point, you go and play the game and you had better leave all of it out there on the field,” Hopkins said. “The last couple of nights we have talked about the opportunity and taking advantage of it.
“Fifty years from now, if they repeat they will still be back-to-back state champs, you can never take that away from them. I don’t think they understand the relevance of that, but we have talked a good bit about it so hopefully by Friday morning they will understand.”
At least this time they believe.
“I think we have had more pressure on us as a team because people look at us and we have an ‘X’ on our back because everybody wants to beat the state champions,” Van Blaricom said. “I am glad that season is over and we are here where we are now and I am hoping we can repeat history.”
/ Twitter @bdtwoodson