Raptors eye next underdog challenge

After winning state title, LV soccer team plans to skip an age group

The Lakeville Raptors boys Under-11 soccer team (white jerseys) has played against older teams – and beaten them. Starting this fall, some of the Raptors are likely to skip the U12 level and play against U13 competition. Photo courtesy of Paul Reiling

The Lakeville Raptors boys Under-11 soccer team (white jerseys) has played against older teams – and beaten them. Starting this fall, some of the Raptors are likely to skip the U12 level and play against U13 competition. Photo courtesy of Paul Reiling

This summer, the Lakeville Raptors competed against soccer players their own age and were state champions. In the fall, they will return to the underdog role with which they’re familiar.

The Raptors were boys Under-11 Classic 1 division champions in the recently completed Minnesota Youth Soccer Association summer state tournament (the U11 tournament games took place at Steve Michaud Park in Lakeville). That would make them an obvious favorite for the U12 Classic 1 state title next summer, but the players, coaches and parents have their sights set higher.

According to coach Brian Lehman, plans are to form a hybrid team. Some of the Raptors’ top players would team with players from the nearby Dakota Rev Soccer Club to would compete in the U13 as 12-year-olds.

“They would get to play 11 vs. 11 on a bigger field,” Lehman said. “We believe our kids are ready for that challenge. At first glance, we’ll probably be in U13 C2. We’re going to try C2 in the fall, and if we have an outstanding season, we’ll look at playing C1” in 2014.

Taking on older competition is nothing new for the Raptors, who qualified for the U11 C2 state tournament in 2012 as 10-year-olds. This year they competed in the U12 C1 division at the Burnsville Fire Cup and placed second – the only tournament this season they didn’t win. They lost just two matches all season – one in league play and the Fire Cup final in double overtime against a U12 team from Edina.

Lehman said he saw that the group needed a challenge when it was dominating its 10-year-old developmental league in the Lakeville Soccer Association. Last year, he had them move to U11 even though most of the players were 9 or 10.

“We’re very happy we did that,” Lehman said. “Our kids were smaller than the kids they were playing against, but we could see the foot skills develop, the confidence with the ball. When we played in our own age group this year, our kids had the technical ability to advance the ball and attack quickly.”

The idea of youth athletes “playing up” against older competition can spark controversy, and it was no different in Lakeville. It was an issue at the center of a breach-of-contract lawsuit former LSA coaching director Alan Merrick brought against members of the soccer association’s board of directors. Merrick alleged that one of the reasons he was fired was he opposed letting certain Lakeville teams play up. The sides reached an out-of-court settlement in May.

Lehman said there’s no question in his mind that playing up works for players who are skilled and motivated. His 9-year-old daughter was on a Dakota Rev U11 C2 team that reached the state championship game, “which was played right next to (the Raptors’) game at the same time,” he said. “The play-up debate seems to be getting harder and harder to argue against when you see teams and players successful at the highest level.”

At state, the Raptors defeated Woodbury 1-0 and Minneapolis United 2-0 in group play. That earned them a match in the final against Eau Claire, Wis., which had scored nine goals in two group-stage games. Lakeville won 5-2 and claimed the state championship.

Lakeville players are Adam El-Halawani, Mason Faint, Sam Just, Alex Kot, Michael Krueger, Chase Lehman, Nick Mines, Zach Oelrich, Dante Piscitiello, Chase Reiter, Henrik Tikalsky and Jacob Young. Brian Lehman and Mike Oelrich are coaches.

The team won six other tournaments, including one indoors. It won the U12 C2 bracket at a tournament in Plymouth and took first at the National Sports Center Spring Cup in Blaine.

up arrow