When it comes to building soccer programs, there aren’t many around who can match Rich Zoller for pure experience.
His résumé includes being a part of the first Big Nine soccer team at Richland High School back in 1988. Under coach Octavio Dovalle, the Bombers went to the 4A state quarterfinals that year. Since then, Richland has won eight district titles and a state championship in 2003.
In 2003, Zoller was hired as boys and girls soccer coach at Prosser High School, where he made five trips to state — three with the girls and two with the boys — in six seasons.
When he took over at Chiawana in the fall of 2010 as the boys and girls coach, he had a unique disadvantage. While he did inherit plenty of talent from the split with Pasco High School, the Riverhawks had no senior leadership to speak of.
That makes it difficult to build a solid foundation. Still, Zoller went to work on building a top-notch team for Pasco’s newest top-notch facility.
“(Former Pasco coaches Chad) Bodnar and (Mike) Pardini had built such a strong tradition. Most of the players we got were “C” team players, so it was hard to establish that tradition at first, being in the shadow of Pasco.
“But the kids worked hard to set those expectations high.”
Two years later, Zoller is surrounded by 11 seniors rich in talent and character, and his team is on the verge of a second consecutive trip to the Class 4A state tournament.
The Riverhawks (10-6) will travel to Spokane to face Central Valley (10-3) — the top seed from the Greater Spokane League — at 1 p.m. Saturday in the CBBN/GSL 4A regional tournament.
Last season, Chiawana was in a similar position but upset Mead — the GSL’s top seed — to earn a state berth.
“A lot of us will be graduating, so this is our year to leave something behind,” said senior defender Ramses Valdovinos.It hasn’t been an easy road.
But then again, a process that involves building something great never is.
“This year, it has been difficult finding our chemistry, but it’s just a matter of consistency,” Valdovinos said.
The players have found a calming presence in Zoller, who is just as adept at dealing with issues off the soccer field as he is between the lines.
“He’s helped us out a lot and got us through some troubles. He helped us establish a tradition,” said senior midfielder Ariel Gonzalez. “I see him as a good friend. You don’t really see that nowadays.”
Gonzalez is a good example of the mindset Zoller has in terms of developing his players and finding the right spot for them.
As a sophomore, Gonzalez played on the junior varsity as a goalkeeper, but Zoller saw some potential in him as a field player.
Two seasons later, Gonzalez is a returning All-CBBN 4A midfielder and one of the top soccer players in the Tri-Cities. Senior goalkeeper Javy Peralta is another example of a player who found a home in an unexpected position.
He started out as a defender but stepped into the goalkeeper role after Gonzalez moved to midfield.
Since then, Peralta has recorded 10 shutouts over the last two seasons.
Peralta, who was recently named a team captain along with Gonzalez, Rene Solorio and Sam Nuñez, said the team has struggled on the road this year but hopes to right things against Central Valley.
“We’re hoping to look back and know we did all we can,” Peralta said.
Zoller says one of the biggest secrets to his success is a dedicated coaching staff consisting of Chris Smith, Jack Anderson and Jesus Herrera, a former Connell goalkeeper.
Smith played with Zoller on that first Bombers soccer team and later coached the Richalnd girls team to a pair of state titles before stepping aside after the 2009 season.
Anderson was an assistant coach for the Pasco soccer and wrestling teams before taking over the Riverhawks’ wrestling program in 2010.
Though all were a part of established traditions at their previous schools, they’ve all contributed to building Chiawana into something the school can be proud of.
“We’ve just tried to establish a style built around these players. We like to build and move from the back, use the flanks. But it’s the players that make it. This year, we have the depth to move players around,” Zoller said.
Zoller said he doesn’t plan to stop coaching anytime soon.
He runs a small construction business in Pasco — Blue Wing Construction — but hasn’t shown any signs of wear yet.
But 20 years from now, he’d like to look back on a Chiawana program well-steeped in a winning tradition.
“I’d like to see a couple banners,” Zoller said with a smile. “More than anything, I’d like to see consistency and a set of team principles. Doing all the little things correct and being a good representative of the Chiawana program.
“If we do that, we’ll have an opportunity to play for some titles.”