CHAMPION - Before the 2013-2014 school year, boys at Girard High School had three options for fall varsity sports - football, golf and cross country - with soccer nowhere on the map.
Soccer only became an option as a club team last fall, and after one year, the board promoted the club team to varsity for this season, which makes the Girard boys soccer team's five-match unbeaten streak to start the season as one of the biggest surprises early in the 2013 campaign.
That streak came to an end Thursday night when the Indians fell to the Champion Golden Flashes, 4-1, at Community Stadium in Champion. Still, it was a start that the players couldn't have imagined before the season began.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Girard boys soccer coach Harry Leith, right, discusses strategy for the second half against Champion with Girard’s Joey Colapietro (5) and Zachery Burrelli (8) during halftime.
"We really didn't know what the other teams were like," junior midfielder Dylan O'Hara said. "Last year, we really played just JV teams, so we didn't know the varsity teams around the area. I didn't think we (would start the way we did)."
Some of these players came into the program with little to no experience, and Leith, a Scot who started the Girard youth program 25 years ago before his 12-year stint as coach of the Ursuline Fighting Irish, said he's seen these players progress considerably over the two years he's been in charge.
This includes a style of play in which the Indians use long, cross-field passes to generate offense. They also try to control the ball in the back rather than having defenders constantly clearing the ball out of danger by booting it down field or out of bounds.
"I'm real proud of these guys," Leith said. "I've got a bunch of guys that have never played soccer before. I'm really proud of the progress we've made just in a year.
"Unbelievable progress. They're starting to think, they're starting to move the ball well. You see it in practice and in the games, really. You saw a lot of the stuff that was going on out there (on Thursday). It looked good - just we couldn't get the finishing, the end product."
Although the Indians have managed to mask it so far, Girard has a depth problem, as the varsity and junior varsity teams have a combined 24 players on their roster. Considering players cannot participate in more than three halves per day, it's a challenge for the Indians to switch in and out players during game action.
It showed during Thursday's loss to Champion (2-2). Leith rarely substituted any players onto the field, with him making zero changes until the last few minutes of the match when the Golden Flashes blew it open in the final six minutes.
Leith said he believes his players can go the full 80 minutes, though.
"They're fit," Leith said of his players' conditioning. "I don't have the depth to put (substitutes) out there. Some of them don't have the speed to keep up with those guys."
The Indians' play and their potential hasn't escaped their opponents, starting with a 13-0 opening win against Mathews on Aug. 17. Even in a loss, Champion coach Tyler LeMon witnessed why the team went five matches unbeaten.
"I had not gotten an opportunity to watch them play, but just from what I've seen (on Thursday), they're a very physical, aggressive team with some talent," LeMon said. "There's definitely a lot of potential there for that program. It's good to see a new varsity team added, and I wish them luck throughout the year."
Whether this start is a fluke or not remains to be seen, but the Indians believe they might shock some more teams before the season ends.
"I think we can," O'Hara said. "This is the beginning of the year. Over time, I think that we can make a run."