Seniors Manny Albarran and Charlie Jackson return to Polk County's roster this season

George Alley envisions a rocking G.M. Tennant Stadium for Polk County home soccer matches, bringing the passion of professional soccer fans to the high school level.

Shouts of encouragement. Cheerleaders. Goal celebrations. He’d love to see and hear that level of support.

“I hope the parents are excited. I hope we can encourage them to bring noisemakers and stuff,” Alley said. “I would love to create a wilder, more cheering atmosphere – and stay off the referees.”

The level of on-field play will do much to help spark that enthusiasm, and Alley is optimistic that the Wolverines can create the requisite scenes. A familiar presence in area soccer, Alley is in his first season as Polk County’s head coach, looking to lead a turnaround from last season’s 4-15 record.

With Monday’s scheduled opener postponed due to a field issue at West Henderson, the Wolverines are slated to make their 2023 debut on Wednesday at East Henderson. Polk will field full junior varsity and varsity squads, with more than 30 players in the program, and that has helped fuel Alley’s optimism about the fall campaign.

“I was really encouraged by the turnout this summer of kids who want to come out and train and get better,” he said. “And the camaraderie. Obviously, the camaraderie is a little easier before you start playing and there are no playing time issues.

“The kids get along well, and they really go full throttle in practice. You can tell there are some kids there that are playing year-round, and the skill level is coming up.”

Getting defensive: Key to Polk County’s fortunes this season may be the play of senior goalkeeper Cade Bright, who returns after recording 166 saves last season and earning All-Mountain Foothills 7 Conference honors.

Alley hopes to primarily employ a 3-5-2 formation, with sophomore Will Garrison anchoring the defenders at center back. Jasper Azar and Noah Greve will lead a group of outside defenders that also includes McClain Koistinen, Luke Miller and Charlie Jackson, who could also see time in midfield.

“Jasper is the fastest kid on the team,” Alley said. “And he is extremely competitive. His ability to get back, and he loves to slide tackle. And he’s smart, too, doesn’t try to do anything too fancy.

“Noah is just this natural physical athlete. I don’t know if he works out or does parkour, but he can do a standing back flip and he’s like 6-2. McClain is big and strong and is competitive. He’s coming on.”

Men in the middle: The 3-5-2 alignment will include five midfielders. Likely to start out widest are James Purtill and Cooper Meyer, with Blake Anderson and Owen Highsmith also expected to see time there in a position that demands the players cover a lot of ground.

Nate Martinez will play as an attacking center midfielder, with Purtill possibly moving to an inside midfielder. “The idea is to get Nate involved in the play a little more because he’s very creative,” Alley said. “He plays very well with James, so I may bring James inside.”

Harrison Ashworth, Tanner Osborn and Jackson will also likely see time in the inside midfield, possibly joined there by Riley Ballentine.

Working up top: After being used primarily as a defender in his freshman season, sophomore Sebastian Azar moves to forward, slotting there with Manny Albarran and Thomas Varnadore.

“Fast, strong, really, really creative,” Alley said of the younger Azar. “And has a really hard shot. I’m really looking forward to see how well they all can work together once we get them involved a little more.

“Then, Manny, same thing, creative. And then Thomas. I like a group of three because you can rotate them through and rest the guys and make sure you get players who are staying in.”

Building effort: The roster is dominated by juniors and sophomores, and with a large turnout for the Polk County Middle program, Alley hopes all of that bodes well for the future.

“We’ve got a lot of younger players,” he said. “I didn’t keep any freshmen on varsity. There are three or four freshmen that, in any given year, could have made varsity. But I want them to have a lot of playing time and play together as a class. They’re a cohesive team with a good coach, and I think they’ll have their own identity this year and I think the JV team will do very well.

“That will also help the varsity get better, because we can do some full-field stuff at the end of practice, which the kids like, and it also helps out with some of the bigger tactical stuff that I think is going to be the biggest challenge for us.”

The change in coaching and also primary formation has also meant a change for many players in the approach to how they play on the field.

“It’s getting them to think more of zigzagging up the field,” Alley said. “And keep possession as we move up the field and not going back to full speed. That being said, you still have to recognize when the chance is there to go.

“There are two times to teach them. One is practice, and the other is the bench. So going over in practice and then, you know, if it starts happening in the game, you bring them over and say, look, you’re not showing discipline.

“Those are the things I don’t know yet how we’ll respond. But I think well, because I haven’t gotten any pushback.”