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In his five-year tenure as Cuyahoga Falls boys soccer coach, Eric Ortopan has seen his program improve in many ways.
The frustrating part is that growth hasn't always been reflected in the score.
Last season, Falls went 4-13, including an 0-7 finish in the Suburban League National Conference.
The transition to the new conference proved as tough as feared for the Black Tigers.
"It's a different animal in both sides of the conference," Ortopan said. "We knew it was going to be a challenge. We're learning still.
"I thought we would have seen a little bit more success," he added. "We struggled to put the ball in the back of the net.
"We did some good things, but you've got to be able to score."
Despite this, Ortopan believes his program is still on the up.
"The gap I wanted to close was the cultural gap when I first came here," Ortopan said. "On a day-to-day basis, these guys are getting better. It's just not always reflected in the score. It can be an aggravating process. That's usually the last thing that comes is the score line."
Falls lost a huge senior class of 10 players, including several multi-year starters. Gone are Jack Sawyer, Alex McCartney, Donovan Taylor, Kolya Rohrer, Shawn Hurr, Hsa Gay, Hsa Wah, Conner Hendry, Tristan Lillquist and Alex Strader.
Despite these losses, Ortopan is hyped, as he has a strong freshman class coming in and more Falls players are playing year-round club soccer.
However, Falls is dealing with some pre-season injuries as well.
"Last year, we ran a 4-2-3-1 counterattack set," Ortopan said. "This year, we're looking at all sorts of ways of penetrating. We have a 4-3-3 that is in the works. That all changes with your opponents."
Ortopan's brother, Dave Ortopan, returns as Falls' junior varsity coach. Brandon Good will serve as varsity assistant coach.
One area Falls is set at is goalkeeper, as senior Tanner Treptow is back for his fourth season as starter.
"The kid's made some huge growth this year," Ortopan said. "He's not a boy anymore; he's a young man. He has a little box back there and I would not want to go in it."
Ortopan has some synergy in his two center backs this fall, as junior Evan Hodson and freshman Josh Boorman play with each other at Liberty FC in the club season.
Senior Jaden Vanyo returns to start at left back.
"The kid is an Energizer bunny that doesn't stop," Ortopan said.
At right back, senior Ryan Kirby is back after an ankle injury last year and provides solid man-marking skills. Junior KJ Pamer brings a bit more speed to the position.
Sophomore Pierce Egan also will see time at defense.
Ortopan said the heart of the team is senior defensive midfielder Harley Beatty, who is playing his natural position.
"He is turning out to be quite the pivot for us," Ortopan said. "He had some injuries last year. He has a personal goal to play every minute of every game for us. It's a big piece of the glue at that spot."
Senior Drew Kull will start in the "box-to-box" midfield role.
"He's another boy that's turned into a man," Ortopan said. "He's quick. He's marking about 18 or 19 mph on the field."
Senior Zach Lias was slated to start at attacking midfield, but has been sidelined with a groin injury to start the year. In his absence, freshmen Luke Feora and Logan Webb look to fill the attacking midfield slot.
At left outside forward, Ortopan was leaning toward starting junior Tristan Wright, but he has been sidelined with an ankle injury. Freshman Jack Hiland has shown he can be effective at left forward.
At right outside forward, speedy junior Noah Dunaj and senior Greg McDevitt are fighting for the spot.
Ortopan said Aug. 16 he was waiting to hear if the OHSAA would rule sophomore Daveon Garcia eligible, after he moved to Falls from Akron Garfield over the summer. If Garcia can play, he will start at center forward.
If not, Webb and Wright will start up top.
Falls was set to open the season Aug. 19 at home vs. Field, but results were not available at press time.
Falls will host North Canton Hoover Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at Laybourne Field before traveling to Barberton Aug. 27 at 3 p.m.