With seven state championships since 2010 – including the last four in a row – Woodburn's boys soccer team has developed a high standard for success.
So when the Bulldogs didn't get a chance to extend their dominance due to a shortened spring season that did not include state playoffs, they were left grasping for motivation.
“It was a letdown for us,” coach Leroy Sanchez said. “The boys really love playing for something. With nothing to play for, there's a level of seriousness that kind of drops.”
This season, the 5A Bulldogs will try to pick up where they left off after being interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. But after losing nine seniors from last season, they have much work to do.
“It's definitely a younger group,” Sanchez said. “A lot of leadership is gone now. We have to have younger guys step up.
“It feels like a rebuilding year, but in the past when we've had to rebuild, usually the group reacts well. It's about finding the puzzle pieces that work in this group. We usually find a way. The boys seem to find that team chemistry.”
Woodburn won 5A titles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017 before moving to 4A when the high school's athletic program met OSAA criteria to drop one level. Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs continued to roll in 4A with state championships in 2018 and 2019.
“Do I think we belonged in 5A? Yes,” Sanchez said. “Was it a lot of pressure to go down to 4A and continue doing the same things? Yes. You can always lose if you're not playing your best.”
The Bulldogs moved back to 5A last season and finished 5-2-4 overall, 5-1-2 in the Mid-Willamette Conference, their former home. Unfortunately for them, 5A did not offer a season-ending tournament, unlike 4A.
“It would've been good to play for something, but at the same time, it was good for us to go back up and start seeing the competition that we came from,” Sanchez said. “I know the boys were hungry to get back up.”
Woodburn went 32-3-1 in two seasons in 4A, including 21-3 in the Oregon West Conference, where the Bulldogs dropped three of four meetings against state power Stayton. They defeated North Marion and Stayton in the two state finals.
“We never thought we were going to go to 4A and dominate the whole thing,” Sanchez said. “There were times when we were like, 'We've got to work for this. This isn't going to come easy.' Stayton wasn't going to let us come in and take over.”
Woodburn will have its hands full in the Mid-Willamette Conference. In the spring, the Bulldogs lost to West Albany and tied Corvallis and South Albany. Corvallis (7-0-1) and West Albany (6-1-1) finished ahead of them in the standings.
But not being able to play for a state title “definitely played a role in how we went about the season, and what it meant,” Sanchez said. “I worked really hard to make something, like, 'Let's try to go undefeated.' It was hard to help them in motivation. It felt like an off year.”
This year's graduating class included midfielder Ricardo Hernandez, the Oregon West player of the year in 2019, and forward Jimmy Martin, who led the team in scoring in the spring.
“All that experience that we lost, they had been there before and knew what it took to get to that game, to play in important games,” Sanchez said. “Some kids are going to have to step up as far as leading.”
Woodburn still has some championship experience, though. Four players were members of the 2019 state title team in senior midfielder Bryan Hernandez, junior defender Jairo Perez, senior defender Noe Gonzalez and senior forward Victor Barajas.
The Bulldogs' roster includes six seniors, four juniors and seven sophomores as well as freshman Misael Diaz, who is showing that he could make an impact in his first season.
“He's a dynamic player,” Sanchez said of Diaz. “He's got speed, he's got vision, he plays well off the ball. As far as the future of the program, if he continues to play the way he is, and keeps growing as a player, he might be a very big part of the program.”
The Bulldogs have a challenging nonleague schedule that includes two upper-division Northwest Oregon Conference teams in Putnam and Wilsonville and two strong 6A programs in Clackamas and Cleveland. They open conference play Sept. 28 at South Albany.
“We're going to have to play together to go at this,” Sanchez said. “We're going to be challenged. This is going to be a tough year for us.”
Photos of state championship events are available from Northwest Sports Photography at 4nsp.com