John Tyler boys open soccer playoffs against Mt. Pleasant

John Tyler's (15) Ulises Velarde kicks the ball as they play Nacogdoches at Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium Friday night March 11, 2016. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

LONGVIEW - Brian Friend was John Tyler's lone assistant coach this time last year as the Lions entered the postseason.

Now in his first year as a head coach, Friend currently has nearly two dozen JT assistants, so to speak.

Friend has relied on his players to be his coaching staff and the team has responded with a 12-4-6 record heading into the playoffs.

"The neat thing about the team is they know I don't have an assistant coach," Friend said. "I told them that in the fall: … I'm going to ask your opinions, I'm going to bounce ideas off you. If I ask you I want to know what you think.

"It's brought us together as a team. They know that I respect their opinions. They know that I'm not always going to do them, but they feel comfortable talking to me about it and they respect the choices I make. … It's created a unique environment for the varsity team."

John Tyler opens the Class 5A playoffs against Mount Pleasant at 7 p.m. Thursday from Lobo Stadium. The winner advances to face either Mansfield Lake Ridge or Dallas Kimball, who also play Thursday.

The Tigers (18-2-4) were the runners-up in District 15-5A behind Pine Tree.

The game is a rematch of last year's bi-district clash, which Mount Pleasant won 5-2 at Pine Tree's Pirate Stadium. Five different players scored for the Tigers, starting with a goal just over a minute into the game. The Tigers also beat the Lions 1-0 earlier in 2015.

Prior to that first-round exit, John Tyler had reached the sectional round of the playoffs four straight seasons and JT players said they are eager to get another deep run going.

On Jan. 16 the Lions and Tigers fought to a 0-0 draw in the Longview Tournament, a rare positive result for JT against a team that has won 18 games the last two seasons, including two shutouts of JT.

But the Lions are out for more than a draw. They want to beat Mount Pleasant and avenge the previous losses.

"It's kind of a personal thing," JT senior captain Aaron Alfaro said.

The Lions had a chance to shoot up to first place in District 16-5A in the final week before settling for third following a disappointing 4-1 loss to Lufkin to end the season.

"The Lufkin game was bad," Friend said. "I wasn't happy about the way that game went. They know that. They're not happy about it either. But I think we've done a good job of putting that behind us."

Friend said the Lions had their best week of practice in months leading up to Thursday's postseason opener.

Overall, the team has been more focused this year under Friend, starting with morning practices and the style of play.

"We had to adapt basically the whole way we went about the day," said Antonio Betancourt, another senior captain. "We had to adapt to the way he coached and the way he wanted to play. They were just completely different."

Friend had expectations of his players on the field and in the classroom, instilling greater discipline with greater responsibility but also creating a family atmosphere.

Teammates give each other rides to the early morning practices and have better communication on and off the field.

"It was difficult to adapt at the beginning, then we got used to it," said Fredy Hernandez, the third senior captain. "We can talk to each other without making them mad. … We encourage each other; we don't bring them down, we pick them up."

Though it took time, with JT winning three of its first six games, the Lions found a groove, winning the Longview Tournament and going 2-0-1 against Class 6A competition in the Lufkin Panther Showcase.

The Lions started district play 6-1-1 but went winless the last four games, with three draws and the loss to Lufkin.

"Second round (of district) we kind of slacked off," Alfaro said. "We weren't as focused as we were in the first round."

Added Betancourt: "I think those tough moments even from the beginning of the year have made us a lot stronger and in a sense we're all a big family."

JT hasn't suffered back-to-back losses all year and has refocused heading into the playoffs. The team should be physically fresh after playing three games since March 2 following 19 games in the first seven weeks of the season.

"I think the mentality and seriousness now is way higher than it was the last couple games," said Hernandez, who leads the team with 14 goals. "We're working hard."

Friend said he takes some of the blame for the late-season swoon (no wins in four), though it's not as bad as it may seem (one loss in eight).

He spent last weekend devising a game plan for Mount Pleasant and the team has fully bought in.

"I've had to learn a lot this year," Friend said. "This is my first year. I haven't had really any assistant coaches in the way I would like to have. It's been a steep learning curve."

Despite the ups and downs, the Lions have had a memorable season under a first-year coach with a score of assistants.

Now they just have to score against Mount Pleasant.

NOTES: District 16-5A vs. 15-5A matchups include Lindale-Pine Tree, Lufkin-Sulphur Springs and Nacogdoches-Longview, all of which are being played in Tyler. Lindale is playing a girls-boys doubleheader at Tyler Junior College's Pat Hartley Field with the Lady Eagles playing Hallsville at 6 p.m. followed by the boys game at 8 p.m. Lufkin-Sulphur Springs kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday from Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium. Nacogdoches and Longview are playing at Robert E. Lee's Red Raider Field at 8 p.m. following the Longview-Jacksonville girls game at 6 p.m. Also on the girls side, Lufkin plays Texas High at 6 p.m. in Marshall.

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