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Experience, chemistry helps Fort Zumwalt North’s breakthrough season

Fort Zumwalt North senior back Tommy DeAvilla is one of four Panthers that has scored six or more goals to help the Panthers out to their best start since 2016.

Success on the pitch has been tough to come by for the Fort Zumwalt North soccer team in recent seasons.

Two years ago, the Panthers suffered through a brutal 2-23 campaign.  Last season saw them finish a bit better at 9-13.

This fall, Zumwalt North is led by a talented group of nine seniors already has more wins than each of the last two seasons, heading into this weekend at 12-3.

For the Panthers, it was not if but when things would change for them. Thanks to good chemistry on and off the field, the group felt in the summer preseason that they were primed for a better start this fall, senior back Tommy DeAvilla said.

“We kind of expected that we would be good this year since we’ve been together since my sophomore year and we’ve been together three years now on the same team,” DeAvilla said. “So, we’ve kind of gelled together and actually [have] become one as a team.”

Zumwalt North has been a red-hot of late, winning six of its last seven games since Sept. 17. The Panthers have been doing it with plenty of scoring, solid defending and timely goaltending.

Players Owen Sears [9 goals], Cole Bixby [8 goals], Grant Rapplean [8 goals] and De Avilla [6 goals] have given opposing defenses a rough time with their ability to spread the field and score nearly at will.

“There is something to say about having numerous guys that can put points on the board,” Zumwalt North coach Brian Kelleher said. “Then other teams look at that and say ‘Wow, who do we key on?’ So, we have 15 or 16 players that have gotten a point one way or the other.”

DeAvilla added, “It’s great having more than one person score. Then you show you just don’t have one person on the team that can actually do it but we have a whole team together because soccer is a sport of teammates.”

A steadier, more disciplined defense has also helped the Panthers. A backline of players like Sears, DeAvilla, Elijah Queles, and Ethan Busse has been more stingy in allowing opposing team’s scoring opportunities.

“The last couple years, I’ve moved Tommy DeAvilla up top and around, and actually, Bixby started out as a back for us a couple of years ago but we made some changes coming into this year,” Kelleher said. “I told Coach [Chad] Baldwin that we were going to concrete [more] on the defensive side of the game and help that develop offensive chances from playing good defense.”

The change in focus has worked well, as the defense has stepped up. Sophomore goalie Davis Herbst has been superb in turning away shots in the goal box.

Herbst enters the final two and a half weeks of the regular season having allowed just a paltry 1.02 goals per game and racked up nine solo shutouts.

“We have a strong defense [in front of me] and I just help make some easy saves,” Herbst said.

DeAvilla said that the Panthers are definitely looking to strive for a district championship this season. The team has not won a district title since 2001. While their end goal is to bring home a championship title, the team intends to stay focused on each game and not get distracted by what-ifs.

“Our focus is just every game one after another,” DeAvilla said. “You have to not focus on games ahead but just the one in front of you. Every game is hard and every team we face is good competition, so we just take it one game at a time.”

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