It was time for a new challenge, and mission accomplished.
Every year of Andy Barber’s tenure as Red Mountain’s girls soccer coach wound up with the Lions in the state tournament, dating back to 2006. The resume was pretty impressive.
But an elite job came open at Highland when former coach John Berzins stepped down after eight years for family reasons after the 2012-2013 season. Barber thought a new challenge and group of girls would be invigorating, and perhaps the Red Mountain girls were ready to hear a different voice for once after nearly a decade of the even-keeled coach.
So far, so good. For the most part.
The Hawks have shown as much with a top-five spot in the Division I power rankings entering the weekend. Though tripped up by a 1-0 loss to Perry last week — its first power rankings loss — and again in a 3-2 loss to Gilbert on Friday night, the Hawks (15-3-1) have won matches a bit differently these days than their recent past as they continue to adjust to a significantly different coaching style and style of play.
Under the fiery, emotional Berzins, Highland won the state championship in 2011-2012 and went to four state tournament semifinals, and while last year’s senior class was dynamic, this year’s junior class is strong. So while Barber knew he was coming into an elite program loaded with expectations, it wasn’t without talent, having been familiar with about 75 percent of current Highland kids through Arsenal club soccer program.
“We’re happy but we’re still learning,” junior captain Bri Hatch said. “It’s hard switching styles and doing things differently with a new coach for so many years.”
The Hawks have allowed 10 goals this season, and it’s only other blemish before last week was a 1-0 loss to powerful Pinnacle in the Arizona Soccer Showcase. But other nuances have changed.
Previous Highland teams relied on a couple dynamic players and set designs to enhance those kids’ abilities. Barber prefers a more free-flowing, somewhat less-structured style of play. Life was grand in the early going as the Hawks won the Tempe Diablos tournament around Christmas and then had a strong showing in the Soccer Showcase.
Though happy with their scoring chances of late, goals have been more scarce, and though it was made clear before the season, a few of the girls acknowledged this week it’s not been easy playing reduced minutes as Barber tries to expand his bench and its depth during the regular season to get more into matches.
“In the long run it’ll help us be better, but some of the girls get frustrated,” junior captain Makkell Parrott said. “You have to put emotions aside for the long run to see the bigger picture.”
His more even personality doesn’t involve nearly as much emotional outpouring — for better or worse — than Berzins, and the team has suffered recently without senior captain Bre McCarter because of a nagging knee injury, though she’s expected to return soon.
“It’s about the long run, there’s a lot of season left,” Parrott said. “We’ll take two-hour practices if it means a state championship. We had familiarity with him and that raised his credibility with most of us from the start.”
That’s been Barber’s message from the beginning, and while the Hawks continue to be championship contenders this season, four seniors on the roster makes for a tantalizing 2014-2015 and beyond.
Even through plenty of success and some significant adjustments, the Hawks haven’t appeared to miss many beats in remaining an elite program moving forward with a new coach, even if he’s not really new to most of them.
It just feels that way sometimes as a new direction is taken.
“At points in the season where you struggle it’s easy to want to make big changes, and it can creep into the girls’ minds about what we’re doing or why things aren’t working as well (than earlier in the season),” Barber said. “But you have to stay positive. We’re on the right path.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.