Over the past few years, as she watched her Thunder Ridge team cruise through regular seasons and make state tournament appearances routine, Corey Toldson felt something off. The Titans set goals. They crossed them off. Yet something felt missing.
“Sometimes there’s been a little bit of doubt in them,” Toldson said, “of really believing what they can do and really believing in themselves.”
Then something changed. Last season, Thunder Ridge returned to the 5A state tournament. The Titans advanced to the title game, where they fell to Boise in penalty kicks.
“Now that belief is there,” Toldson said. “They know what they are. They know what they have, and they believe in themselves, 100%, that they can go on and tackle everything that they desire.”
Thunder Ridge has kicked off the new season 2-1, so by all accounts, the Titans believe in themselves in ways they haven’t before.
Most importantly, the Titans employ nine seniors, which the team hopes can remedy the losses of several key players: Leading scorer Nate Thompson, keeper Jaxton Whitbeck, centerbacks Alan Lizarraga and Fernando Vargas and center defensive mid Austin Hoopes, all of whom graduated last spring. Together, they helped the Titans reach three straight state tournaments. That’s one for every year the school has been opened, starting in 2018.
In their places, Toldson is leaning on a few players in particular. Bryson Stratton, who tore his ACL before last year’s tryouts, figures to become a key cog. Luis Zamora — “Chuy” to his teammates and coaches — has started since his freshman year and now he’s back as a senior. Toldson expects Israel Chavez, another senior, to be a “dominant player.” Even sophomore Adrian Trejo will start at midfield.
That’s the group, at least in part, that will try to accomplish what their predecessors could not. Since Thunder Ridge’s school opened three years ago, the Titans have captured three straight district tournament crowns and earned three straight state tournament bids. The farthest they advanced was the state championship game last season, when they dropped a 5-4, penalty kicks decision to Boise.
That’s not bad for a new program, especially considering what it did for this season’s returners. “The whole team has that drive and that belief because of last year,” Toldson said. “It’s bled over. It’s just who we are.” But for this season’s players, the ones accepting larger roles and more playing time, it also meant exposure to the team’s culture.
Let Toldson explain.
“Culture is a really big part of who we are,” she said. “I want the boys to buy into the whole process of the team. And that’s everything from showing up to practice, and they have practice shirts they wear, so that we all represent Thunder Ridge, and we’re all uniform, even at practice.
“They know my expectations for them in the classroom and on the field. They know that I expect them to carry themselves with class, and that’s part of who we are. So just the whole culture as a team — I have really high standards for them. And they buy into it and rise up to it. They’re a family.”
Unfortunately for the Titans, they’re starting the season without two family members.
Spencer Thomas remains out with a concussion, while senior Kaegan Burtenshaw is missing time with some sort of muscle strain. Toldson said she isn’t quite sure what kind.
What she feels more confident in is what the team will look like anyway, whenever Thomas and Burtenshaw return.
“We’ve got some injuries that we’re nursing and healing, but the boys are stepping up and playing well together,” Toldson said. “I fully expect, looking forward to the year, that we are going to be a top competitor again this season.”