JAMES CITY — Eight starters are gone from the Jamestown High squad that beat Tuscarora 4-3 for the Group AA boys soccer state championship in June. The Eagles returned to the field with a 1-0 loss on Tuesday to Kellam.
Eagles coach Bobby O'Brien isn't pushing the panic button, because he's been down this road before. That the fairly experienced defense of Wilson Coughenour, Mike Connell, John Toler and Ryan Satira played well was most what he wanted to see.
"I'd rather be where we are right now, losing games 1-0 when the defenders are organized and defending well," O'Brien said. "I'd rather that than losing 4-3 and having to plug holes defensively.
"It's my job to figure out ways to put people in positions to score goals. It's what I like doing and what I've been good at over the years."
So the 2013 season for the Eagles will be about finding ways to create and score. And the Eagles are showing improvement quickly, as evidenced by their 2-1 win on Tuesday over perennial AAA state power Cox, which, like Kellam, hails from the powerful larger schools Beach District.
It's reminiscent of 2009, the last time the Eagles defended a state title. The Eagles started that season 1-5-1 and 0-3 in the Bay Rivers District, considered by some as the toughest in state AA.
They went on to win their final seven district games, beginning a streak of 44 consecutive without a loss entering this season. Jamestown won the district tournament from the No. 5 seed to qualify for the regionals, then won all three regional games on the road to qualify for the AA state tournament.
"It was eerily similar to this year," O'Brien said. "We had just lost all of our stud players and were calling it a rebuilding year.
"We had to manufacture a lot of things, we had to work hard and we didn't have the best personnel but we all bought into it. That's something that could very much happen here if we put the right pieces together."
O'Brien has some pretty good attacking pieces to work with. Brian Jordan and Duncan McDevitt are big for freshmen and flash lots of athletic potential.
Matt Cullom brings tenacity and leadership, while Jeff Wolens, a creative ball-handler, gained plenty of experience in the state championship run. Kevin Kefalas and Cap League are capable of supporting the attack from the wings.
Still, no one, O'Brien included, is pretending the Eagles will match the firepower and flair they had a year ago. Patrick Kelly moved on to Mary Washington after setting a single-season school record with 36 goals. Jon Cullom scored 31 goals, including a 25-yard blast that clinched the state championship victory, but will focus on club soccer this spring.
"We'll have to be patient, build up the attack and manufacture goals," he said. "It will be a small-ball style. It's like basketball: you can't run and gun if you're playing three centers."
O'Brien expects his players to adapt and continue to win. Opposing coaches agree and consider the Eagles a slim favorite in the district despite the personnel losses.
"His players really buy into what he's trying to get them to do," said Tabb coach Scott Kuhnle, whose Tigers have lost to Jamestown in the past two Region I championship games. "The player-coach relationships are at a good level in that program, and he get gets them to play beyond the level of what they think they're capable of."
O'Brien's position as director of the Virginia Legacy club soccer program has been key. It's not strictly a Jamestown-oriented organization — 25 of 33 All-Bay Rivers District Players in 2012 played for Legacy — but O'Brien said 95 percent of his players belong.
That gives them 10 months of high-quality competition against players from other states and lots of extra time with O'Brien.
"They understand my style as coach and my likes and dislikes," O'Brien said. "When March (and the high school season) comes, I don't have to fight them for what I want.
"They've already bought into the message."
O'Brien takes a long-term planning approach. He purposely schedules state powers like Cox early so the Eagles will learn their weaknesses.
If a loss or difficult win against a larger school keeps his players from getting cocky, all the better. He's flexible enough to cancel a practice when he feels his players are leg-weary or mentally fatigued.
The goal is having them ready when it counts most at the end of the season. Jamestown's record of success the past five seasons validates the method: two state titles, five consecutive regional titles, four district titles and four district tournament titles.
"We really work to get better each and every game, so that when the postseason comes we're where we need to be to make a run at the state championship," Matt Cullom said.
O'Brien said that goal is more about pride than pressure for the players.
"I think they know the standards I have for them and the standards others before them have placed on the program because of the wins and success they had," O'Brien said. "There's a little pressure in that they want to live up to those expectations, make a name for themselves and keep up the tradition."