Preston soccer

Preston striker Parker Cromwell controls the ball between a pair of Pocatello players in the championship match of the 4A Fifth District Tournament on Wednesday.

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A promising season was on the brink of unraveling for Preston’s boys soccer program following a head-scratching 8-2 road loss to Skyline on Sept. 9.

Granted, the Grizzlies are solid this season as is evidenced by their 11-6-2 record, but they were also an opponent Preston handled by a 4-0 scoreline back on Aug. 28.

Things didn’t get much better for the Indians four days later as they lost at home to Pocatello, 2-0, in their district opener. All of a sudden, Preston had dropped three straight matches and had been outscored 12-2 in the process.

A lot of teams would have continued in their downward spiral but, to their credit, the Indians did not. Instead, a resilient Preston side went unbeaten over its next eight matches (7-0-1) and punched its first ticket to the 4A State Championships since 2014.

Preston (10-5-2) went 3-0 against Pocatello (10-6-2) the rest of the season, including a thrilling 4-3 victory on Wednesday in the title game of the 4A Fifth District Tournament. The Indians overcame deficits of 2-1 and 3-2 in that showdown.

“The boys this year have worked their guts out, especially with the rocky start that we had,” Preston head coach Kira Matthews said. “To turn that around and trust us as coaches to lead them in the right direction and to get to this point (is a big deal). They’ve done everything we’ve asked and more, and they are willing to work extremely hard for every win.”

Indeed, it’s been a whirlwind of a season for an experienced Preston side, but the payoff has been worth it. This year’s varsity squad is comprised of 10 seniors and six juniors.

“It’s honestly one of the most accomplishing things I’ve ever been a part of,” said senior defensive midfielder Hunter Facer.

So, how exactly was Preston able to bounce back from its aforementioned three-game skid?

Getting more comfortable with a 3-2-3-2 formation certainly helped, asserted Tyce Shumway, who is Preston’s other starting defensive mid.

“Something that really helped us after that (Skyline) game was that we finally decided to stick with one formation instead of switching it up every other game,” he said. “Our coaches also started making less substitutions on the backline and defensive mids, which helped us get into a flow and connect better.”

The Indians definitely played better defensively during the second half of the regular season as they conceded multiple goals only twice during their eight-match unbeaten streak. Additionally, Preston recorded clean sheets against 5A Highland — a team it lost to by a 2-0 scoreline earlier this season — and Pocatello during that timespan.

In the process, Preston was able to find continuity with its starting backline of Dylan Wood (center back), JJ Higley (right back) and Koby Bodily (left back), plus Deklan Haslam has made strides as a goalkeeper.

Preston also started piecing together better build-up in the run of play, Facer said, instead of being more direct.

“The Skyline game was sort of a crazy situation, but definitely made us kick it in gear,” he said. “We are very good where we play and started trying to pass more and keep in on the ground, which is what we consider our style of play. And that’s helped a lot against the other teams that don’t settle the ball and pass like we do.”

The Indians have clearly found their mojo in the attack during their unbeaten streak as they have found the back of the net three or more times in five of those eight games.

“I think some of the keys to the improvement to our attack and our consistency was just getting used to playing with each other,” Preston striker Parker Cromwell said. “Most of the attack was new. The more we played, the more we understood each other and our style of play. Another key that helped us is our confidence after a couple big wins. We realized how good we were and we came in knowing we were gonna score.”

A year ago it could be argued Preston relied a little too much at times on standout forward Kadin Reese, who led all Cache Valley prep boys players in goals (19) and assists (11). The Indians, who have only been shut out three times, are a bit more balanced offensively this season.

Cromwell, who moved from the Las Vegas area to Franklin County this past summer, leads Preston in goals (11) and assists (five), while Bryan Bustos, Parker Kofoed and Bryan Ricaldi have contributed with at least four goals apiece.

Bustos and Cromwell have both found the back of the net in three of Preston’s last four games, plus Cromwell’s game-winner on Wednesday was assisted by Bustos. Additionally, Cromwell recorded a brace in the second half in each of Preston’s showdowns against Pocatello in the district tournament. All four of those goals were netted with less than 15 minutes remaining in the match.

“It feels great to score at the end of the season,” Cromwell said. “My favorite thing ever is celebrating after big goals. When I can come through for my team in big moments, it’s relieving because we all work so hard and it’s not just the (goal) scorers. But yeah, it’s rewarding to score a big goal.”

More than anything, though, Preston was ultimately able to develop its identity as a team.

“Yes, I do think it was a matter of finding our identity because we needed to realize that we can’t win if we rely on one guy to do everything,” Shumway said. “So, during this (unbeaten) streak we’ve been on, we finally started working as a team and that ultimately helped us turn things around.”

The 4A State Championships will start next Thursday in Caldwell. Preston’s first-round opponent in the eight-team tournament will most likely be revealed Saturday. For the first time in the history of the tourney, the final RPI from maxpreps will be used to seed the bracket.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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