The ghost of the 2015 Natrona boys soccer team was still present in the locker room of this year’s team.
Those Mustangs from two years ago were young but they proved to be the best in the West Conference by earning the top seed in the regional tournament and winning two straight for the top seed from the conference in the state soccer tournament.
Led by freshmen Niki Vlastos and Danny Diaz, Natrona looked primed for its first soccer title since 1996 until Sheridan’s 3-1 upset in the quarterfinals ended the once hopeful season. Vlastos left for the St. Louis FC youth academy and Diaz was banished to the Kelly Walsh junior varsity before returning to the Mustangs for his junior season.
First-year head coach Chad Miller met with his team before the season and saw the faces that remained from that promising year.
“A few of the kids were on the NC team from two years ago,” Miller said. “So I just reminded them of that year and nothing is given.”
He went about resurrecting the spirit of that team, not the one of the 2016 Mustangs that finished last in the conference’s regular season.
Miller quickly got associated with the vibrant personalities on this year’s squad. A rag-tag group of role players with a tempered prolific striker, Miller knew that he had to mesh the right leadership style to get the most out of this year’s team.
He held the entire roster accountable for their actions on and off the field, instilled the ethics of being a student athlete and ensured they were respecting the game of soccer.
“Not talking too much to the refs and just worrying about what they could do to improve themselves,” Miller explained. “Expectations were to go out there every day and compete.”
Those expectations were exceeded early on.
Natrona started 4-1 with Diaz picking up where he left off in 2015. The junior scored the game-winner in Natrona’s emotional 2-1 overtime victory against rival Kelly Walsh in their first meeting this season.
Then, as the Mustangs wavered in the last half of the season, Miller moved Diaz back to a center attacking midfield position. This allowed Reegan Chadderdon to play center forward while Diaz became a vital scoring threat from behind when the ball was played wide out to either Johann Reyes or Ben Radosevich.
It was a move that added versatility to the Natrona attack and renewed confidence going into regionals as the No. 4 seed. Natrona defeated Evanston in regionals to clinch another state tournament appearance.
Awaiting the Mustangs in the quarterfinals at the state tournament was Cheyenne Central, one of the hottest teams in the state and the top seed of the much-lauded East Conference.
“Before we left for state and at the tournament we just talked to the team,” Miller said, “and told them it was a tournament game and anything can happen.”
Forced to play without Diaz, Natrona still forced overtime against Central and took the Indians down to the wire.
Minute after minute, goalkeeper Tanner Conley came away with saves bigger than the ones before. He was the sophomore starter in goal during that 2015 season and remained confident in net during his 62-save senior season.
Still, Central did sneak the game-winner past Conley to banish Natrona to the consolation bracket.
Unsure of how his team would react to the consolation ranks, Miller summoned his team to focus them on what was left to play for.
“I just kind of reminded them that we’re still here and we’re still playing a game that we all love,” he said. “Consolation bracket is about pride. And they responded well to the team talks and got the results we deserved.”
Natrona got vengeance on Gillette for the season-opening loss in the Casper Jamboree and sent the Camels home.
The Mustangs then topped defending champion Laramie to win the consolation bracket.
With the spirit of 2015 alive in the senior class of Conley, Reyes, BJ Vandervoort, Will Lance, Zach Berran and Clayton Sterling, the Mustangs rose to greater heights than the team did two years prior.
“I’m just thankful to all of them,” Miller said. “Being a first year coach had its difficulties and I was lucky enough to have the seniors that I had.”
Replacing Conley in goal will be difficult, but the core of the offense will return next year for the Mustangs.
Chadderdon, Radosevich and Joey Antonovich will all be juniors and the stage will be set for Diaz’s senior season.
“We did some great things this year and I’m excited for next year,” Miller said. “For that entire 80 minutes, for the first minute and for the last minute you have to be totally focused. There were a few games where we either started slow or didn’t finish out.
“I just reminded them that we need to play for the full 80.”
For a team that had problems closing out matches all year, the Mustangs put it all together at the most valuable time.