Take a quick glance at the Class 5A boys and girls state soccer playoffs and one things jumps off the page: Bend schools have run wild over the rest of the state.
“Our schools can play with anybody in the state and truthfully in the country,” said Mountain View boys coach John Howles, whose team plays Cleveland today at 2 p.m. in the Class 5A semifinals. “You put one team together (from Bend) and we could compete with anybody all over.”
The numbers don’t lie. During the 2007 boys season, Bend schools Bend High, Mountain View and Summit went a combined 37-4-1. Bend High and Mountain View play today in separate semifinal matches and could meet on Saturday for the Class 5A state championship.
“The quality of kids has just gotten better and better,” said Howles, who has been at Mountain View for the past four years. “I’ve got freshmen kids, that truthfully, are better than the seniors I’ve had in a lot of years.”
Bend’s girls programs have kept pace or even surpassed their male counterparts. Last season the Bend High girls became the first Central Oregon team to win an outright state soccer championship — Mountain View’s boys shared the Class 4A title with Jesuit in 1999 after playing to a 0-0 tie — and this year the Lava Bears are again in the hunt for a state title, playing Wilsonville today at 6 p.m. in the Class 5A semifinals.
“We’re getting really polished girls from club soccer,” said Bend girls coach Bob Welch. “They’re polished and they have a passion for soccer. It makes it easy for a high school coach.”
Bend, Summit and Mountain View dominated the Intermountain Conference — the three schools finished 1-2-3 — and combined to go 39-11-1 overall this season. Mountain View and Summit each reached the Class 5A quarterfinals while the Lava Bears are in position to win back-to-back state championships. “The girls are coming in now not just with the expectation of winning, but they want to develop as a soccer player,” said Welch, an assistant coach on last year’s state championship team that had five girls go on to play collegiate soccer. “They come in with the expectation to play some level of college soccer.”
So what gives? How is Bend becoming one of the premier places in not just the state but the entire Northwest for high school soccer?
“Our club soccer program is second to none,” said Welch, who not only has coached in Bend over the years, but also has sent children through the city’s youth programs. “They’ve really raised it to another level in the last five years.”
Twenty years ago, then-Bend High boys coach Rocky Dillenburg had 15 players on his 1987 varsity team and 13 on his junior varsity squad.
“That was the second year Bend had high school soccer,” said Dillenburg, now the coach of the Pendleton girls team. “We were in a league with Elmira, Mountain View, Pleasant Hill, Redmond, Marist, Junction City and Sunriver Prep. And there was no girls program. Heather Crain and Lisa Gibson both played quite a bit for us.”
Not exactly the level of play fans expect to see when the Lava Bears take on Glencoe today in the boys Class 5A semifinals. But after his first year as coach, Dillenburg and a group of parents started the Central Oregon Soccer Association, a club program that aimed to have kids playing soccer at earlier ages.
“We organized a meeting with Mountain View and Bend parents and formed COSA with the idea of trying to get some youth teams at a competitive level,” Dillenburg said. “It was kind of cool that it wasn’t Mountain View versus Bend, but it was more of ‘let’s get Central Oregon soccer going.’”
While COSA eventually disbanded after several years, it started the mind-set that in order to have quality soccer, kids have to play early and often. Eventually clubs like Oregon Rush and Bend United came onto the scene and more and more athletes entered high school as fine-tuned soccer players.
“We only have the kids from August to November,” said Bend High boys coach Nils Eriksson. “Soccer’s such a technical sport, kids need to spend a lot of time with their foot on the ball. If you have clubs teams do that, it really helps out.”
Around the same time club soccer began to grow in Central Oregon, the population explosion that transformed Bend from a sleepy mill town to a sexy outdoor destination brought in a whole new kind of sports family.
“With the population growth, you got an influx of families used to the travel and mentality that comes with club soccer,” Dillenburg said. “And you had coaches coming in from California that raised the level. It all contributed to the soccer development in Bend.”
With the combination of more soccer-oriented families and better coaches, Bend and Central Oregon in general began to plant the seeds for a generation of kids that grew up playing soccer almost year-round.
“Now more people have played the game,” said Howles, whose players have grown up with club soccer like past generations were brought up with Little League. “People are starting off a lot younger. By the time kids get to high school, they’re bringing game.”
Of course, the Oregon School Activities Association’s recent reclassification has helped as well. When the state essentially halved Class 4A into a 6A and 5A classification, Bend schools went from good to great.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve dominated, but we’ve definitely been up there,” said Eriksson, whose team lost to Hillsboro in last year’s Class 5A final and has been ranked No. 1 in 5A for most of this season. “It’d be interesting to compete with some of those (6A) schools.”
The Bend schools have hardly been the only Central Oregon programs to see success as the area has grown and matured into a verifiable soccer breeding ground. Sisters and Redmond sent both its boys and girls teams to the state playoffs this season and the Crook County boys advanced to state under first-year coach Joel Carrillo.
“I’ve always kind of kidded about it, that I created a monster over there,” Dillenburg joked. “But it’s worked out well for Central Oregon.”