A new season of soccer has fallen upon Northern Virginia, where no high school team looks more different than it did a year ago than the defending region champions. Robinson returns just six players from the squad that capped last year’s scintillating playoff run with a sudden-death victory against Lake Braddock in the region championship, its second region crown since 2000.
The Rams’ fresh look this spring owes also to the man leading the charge. No longer will legendary coach Jac Cicala be roaming the Robinson sidelines, having stepped down at the end of last season after 33 years of teaching in Fairfax County. With two region titles and a state championship appearance highlighting his five years at Robinson, Cicala ended his 20-year high school coaching career with six region trophies to go with the four state championships he won at Lake Braddock.
Stepping into the void is Robert Garza, who transformed a floundering Mount Vernon program into a local juggernaut during his nine seasons in Alexandria. Garza reeled in his second National District title last spring, culminating a watershed season that reaped a 16-2-2 record and a top-20 ranking in the ESPN.com national poll.
Mount Vernon’s 2012 season came to an abrupt halt against Robinson in the regional quarterfinals, when the Rams emerged with a penalty kick shootout win that marked the second of four straight overtime victories. The man on the losing end of that nail-biter made the jump to Robinson five weeks later, taking over a program as storied as the coach who left it.
“They’re huge, huge shoes to fill,” Garza said. “There’s a deep-rooted tradition, and so the first thing on my mind is to make sure I do whatever I can to keep that tradition up and to find a way to get my system to coincide with Jac’s old system to make it work for the players that are returning and the new players that are coming in.”
Garza, a Hayfield graduate, grew up in the area playing for Gunston Team America before competing in college soccer at Liberty University and Marymount University. The recently turned 40-year-old brings a fast-paced brand of soccer to Robinson, one that features rapid movement off the ball to create free-flowing possession and attacks built up from the back.
That style of play requires a high level of endurance, a key point of emphasis in February practices. Hunched over their knees in exhaustion, winded players quickly realized their fitness levels during grueling running drills in recent weeks.
“One thing that I’ve always noticed playing against Robinson teams was that they have a lot of heart and they find a way to dig down deep inside late in the game to be able to keep playing, but they got winded very quickly, especially in the first half,” Garza said. “So we’re going to bring a lot of speed and agility to their game this year. There’s going to be a lot of off-the-ball movement.”
Senior captains Andrew Osiecki and Evan Christian lead a youthful roster that includes six sophomores and a freshman this year. Key newcomers will be junior Yordy Selma, who displays quickness in the midfield, and Filip Mayernick, a speedy senior forward who recently moved back from Utah. Senior Kolya Rabinowitch should be solid at the goalkeeper position, even after not playing last season.
Mayernick came up big in the team’s season opener Tuesday night, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win against George Mason High. Christian provided both assists in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
Garza approached this season with the intention of forming a younger team that can build experience over time, which led him to cut several seniors from the roster. He expects four or five underclassmen to step into starting roles right away this season. That level of youth doesn’t concern Garza, who believes the fact that every member of his squad plays for a club travel team is experience enough.
Even with all the changes coming their way, players have readily embraced the passion their new coach exudes.
“I think he’s a great coach,” said Osiecki, who committed to play soccer at Mary Washington next year. “You can tell he’s got a lot of heart, and his love of the game is definitely there.”
Elsewhere in the ever-competitive Concorde District, Oakton has the talent necessary to make it a favorite this spring, while defending district champion Herndon must respond to the loss of their head coach, Sean Lanigan, who left the program after nine years at the helm to take over a Westfield team that finished last season 2-9-1. Senior standouts Kurt Myers and Carlos Mendoza are poised to keep the Hornets in the hunt, though.
Regardless of anyone’s expectations, opponents will be looking to exploit the perceived vulnerability of a Robinson side in transition.
“Garza’s already said, ‘None of the teams like us because we won regions last year,’” Osiecki noted.
If winning breeds animosity, Robinson’s new coach wouldn’t mind creating a bit of tension in the coming months.