SHENANDOAH — When last season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, The Woodlands and Klein Forest were in a neck-and-neck battle atop the District 15-6A standings.
This year, the two teams find themselves in different districts, so a meeting had to occur in the Highlander Invitational instead. It was The Woodlands that came out on top 3-0 at Woodforest Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon.
“We try to schedule the best teams that we can,” The Woodlands coach Jason Fanning said. “Winning a game 10-0 doesn’t really help teach you anything, so games like this that are super difficult and require a lot of energy, you learn the most. There’s risk and that risk is what sharpens you.”
The Woodlands is off to a 6-1-2 start this season against tough competition, and Fanning had a hard time coming up with anything that has not pleased him about the beginning of the year.
“The effort and the commitment to the project have been amazing,” Fanning said. “Their willingness to give more of themselves for each other has been impressive. I’ve been so happy with the play and we’re playing a fun style of soccer that I think is a lot of fun to watch. That makes a big difference.”
Early on Friday, the style of play the Highlanders showed led to plenty of possession. A shot on goal, a set piece in the offensive third and a cross that led to a wide shot all came in the first six minutes.
“We always want to keep the ball because we don’t like running after it,” senior midfielder Hasan Arif said. “We try to keep the ball in the midfield and create chances. At the end of the day, if they don’t have the ball, they can’t score.”
The field began to tilt more in Klein Forest’s favor as the Golden Eagles settled into action. Dante Zavala took a set piece that was cleared in the 9th minute, then Matt Hilborn cleared a corner kick taken by Jair Gonzalez Tristan.
As the final 10 minutes of the half approached, chances were created for the Highlanders by Davin Hickman-Chow and Cody Tice.
In the 36th minute, The Woodlands put an end to the scoreless draw. Ollie Mason made a short throw from the right sideline and after it was played back to him, his cross was headed in by Max Coady near the back post.
On the other side of halftime, the 1-0 lead grew in the 52nd minute.
The play that led to Hickman-Chow’s goal began with a corner kick from the left side. Arif’s service bounced around in the box before it was chased down by Sam Roberts on the right side. Roberts delivered a quick cross that was finished by Hickman-Chow, a presence in the box at 6-foot-4, with a header.
“Davin would be easy to notice in a subway or cafeteria or anywhere,” Fanning said. “He’s got a fantastic personality. It’s not just his size and his effort — he’s a wonderful person and a great friend, an excellent competitor.”
With Hickman-Chow atop the formation like he was Friday, Fanning says it allows his team to change up its style.
“Early on, we were pretty much a through-ball team,” the coach said. “We tried to beat people with speed. Now, with (Hickman-Chow) there, we’re able to play a more traditional, English-style hold up kind of play. Hold up, play it back and see what occurs then. It’s just a different dynamic, like bringing in a lefty.”
Six minutes after Hickman-Chow’s tally, Arif made it 3-0. The senior stole the ball just inside the box, then blasted a shot in on the short side.
Arif, a first team All-County selection last season, says the closeness of the team has stood out early this season.
“The chemistry and atmosphere is a lot better,” he said. “End of last year, we started losing games and not getting all the results. This year, the guys have gelled really well.”
The chemistry will be important moving forward, beginning with a 9 a.m. game against Westfield on Saturday. After that, just two more contests precede the District 13-6A slate, which Arif is “super eager” to get to.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere,” he said. “Some of the new kids, we always try to tell them the preseason is completely different. District is a whole different animal. It’s all about results. Right now, we can talk about how the team played well or whatever, but district is all about results and trying to get another district championship and get into the playoffs and do well there.”