From the time Stephen Exarhos left the Hanford boys soccer team in 2008, the program has fought to live up to its reputation for top-notch soccer.
Under coach Sean Esterhuizen, Exarhos made two trips to state with Hanford in 2005-06 and helped keep the team competitive for the next two seasons under Kyle Vierck.
But while Exarhos was making a place for himself in the Lawrence University men’s soccer record books from 2008-2012 — he’s fourth on the career assist leaders list — the Falcons won just seven regular-season games.
“I think it’s just circumstantial. It happens to every program if the right players don’t live in the right area,” said Exarhos, now a 23-year-old Hanford assistant.
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After four consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs, the Falcons made a big change with the hiring of former Pasco coach Mike Pardini, who led the Bulldogs to state soccer titles as a coach (in 2007) and as a player (1999).
That move, along with the addition of assistant coach Chip Elfering and a team loaded with club-level talent, has turned the reeling program around in a big way.
“(Pardini is) a very competitive coach, and he wants to win,” said Falcons’ defender Kelly Smith, who is part of a strong trio of junior co-captains along with defender Kyle McMurrich and forward Jacob Bogen. “He knew we had a losing record, but he told us that he and Chip came here because they believe in us and they believe we can win.”
So far, Hanford has done just that.
The Falcons went 9-5 during in the Mid-Columbia Conference, finishing in a tie for second. After earning their first playoff berth in four seasons, they won three consecutive playoff games to earn its first 3A state appearance since 2006.
“I wanted to give these guys an opportunity to paly in meaningful games and give them a chance to grow, and they’ve done that,” Pardini said. “At first, I was more worried about these kids not having (big game) experience. I thought it might take a year or so to get to the regional level. Never did I think it would be this quick.”
One of the turning points came during an MCC game on April 9, when Hanford trailed Walla Walla 1-0 on the road with just 20 minutes to go in regulation. The Falcons ended up winning the match 3-1.
“I don’t know if the team realized it then, but we proved we can come back and win games, even on the road. That gave us a lot of confidence and trust,” Smith said
Pardini wasn’t pleased when Hanford, with the MCC title still within reach, dropped its final two league matches to finish second. But he’s been more than encouraged by his team’s ability to win on the road.
The Falcons began with a 6-2 home win over Mt. Spokane for their first playoff win since 2007. Next came a 2-1 overtime road win over University, setting up another road match against Shadle Park, the top seed out of the Greater Spokane League.
Hanford proved its mettle again with a 2-0 win, which locked up a 3A state berth.
“We were ecstatic. Everybody looked around and started hugging and screaming, ‘We made state!’ ” Smith said. “(Pardini) is pretty low-key, but he’s all about celebrating when need be, as long as it’s not bragging or boasting.
“The bus ride home was very fun, as you can imagine.”
But one of the benefits of experience is the ability to keep yourself on an even keel. Under Pardini’s guidance, the Falcons (10-6) haven’t let success get to their head.
They’ll need to bring their best game against Juanita (12-4-4) in the first round of state today at 6 p.m. at Hanford High School.
“We look at ourselves as underdogs. We didn’t win league. We didn’t get the No. 1 seed,” Exarhos said. “As coaches, we tell the players, ‘We haven’t accomplished anything yet. Now go and do something about it.’ ”
Enumclaw (10-8) at Kennewick (13-3), Lampson Stadium, 6 p.m.: The Lions haven’t given up a goal in 585 minutes but they’re still dangerous on the offensive end. The ballhandling and striking skills of defender Noe Diaz gives Kennewick coach Brian Gochoel some options if his attacking third needs a boost.
Stadium at Richland (10-5), Bomber Field, 6 p.m.: The Bombers struggled to find their rhythm during the regular season, but they’re finally in tune with three consecutive victories, including big playoff wins over Walla Walla and Ferris. Richland is led by MCC goal leader Austin Herrick (13 goals) and MCC assist leader Jonathan Larsen (12 assists) and goalkeeper Damian Ruiz, who led the league with eight shutouts.
East Valley (Spokane) at Grandview, 4 p.m.: The Greyhounds hadn’t had a winning season since 2009 but exploded onto the scene this year with a young lineup led by Ismael Montes (10 goals, 5 assists) and goalkeeper Elmer Campuzano (4 shutouts).
Manson at Royal, 6 p.m.: The Knights have emerged as a perennial threat in the SCAC and seem to have their eyes focused on state every year. With two third-place finishes under their belt in 2011 and 2012, Royal is a team to watch.