Coming off a 16-win season, it would be hard for any high school soccer team to make a noticeable improvement.
Unfortunately for its opponents this year, the Western Reserve Academy boys soccer team is not just any high school squad.
The Pioneers finished the 2012 season as the No. 1 team in Division III in Ohio after posting a 19-0-2 record -- only the third undefeated season in the program's 87-year history. The team also was No. 4 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Great Lakes Region poll and No. 25 in the association's national poll as well as the second-ranked team in the Elite Soccer Report's prep school poll.
Along the way the Pioneers beat (Gates Mills) Hawken School, which made the state championship final in Division III; Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, which made the state championship final in Division II; Mansfield Christian, the No. 6 ranked team in Division III; and (Hunting Valley) University School, the No. 5 ranked team in Division II. They also earned a draw with (Cleveland) St. Ignatius, the No. 1 ranked team in the state in Division I.
"While we had numerous individuals receive recognition at the local, state, regional and national levels, the success we had this year was a total team effort," head coach Herb Haller said of a team that featured 14 players from Summit County. "Our team chemistry was good and we always had 11 players on the field who could play and who understood their roles on the field and within our system of play.
"Consequently, we played a very attractive brand of soccer that was enjoyable to watch and for the players was enjoyable to play. This group has set a very high standard and has raised the expectations of this storied program at WRA."
The Pioneers were led by senior Hudson resident Fede Silva, who earned a Gold Medal, the school's highest athletic award.
"It is clear to anyone who has watched us play during his career that Fede has been instrumental in our success," Haller said.
"He plays with flare and an ease that is a joy to watch and coach. Technically, Fede is exceptional. He is quick and deceptive and his vision is quite good. He plays the game the way it should be played and loves doing it."
Senior Jack McCormick, a Hudson resident, earned Most Valuable Player honors.
"Jack played with a presence on the field and as one of our captains, he played with a determination to make his last soccer season at Reserve a most memorable one," Haller said. "All the pieces came together for him in a way this season that enabled him to utilize his size on the field, whether it was winning a head ball in the back or trying to score on a corner kick.
"Jack's calmness with the ball, either under pressure as he played the ball out to midfield or sending a 50-yard laser with his left foot behind the opposing team's defense, was a huge asset for us as a team. Jack has raised the bar yet again for those who follow in his footsteps and I have thoroughly enjoyed coaching Jack and the rest of these seniors."
The Most Improved Player Award was presented to junior Jack McKenzie, a Hudson resident.
"Jack did not crack the starting lineup until the end of the year, but he played well enough throughout the season to be a starter," Haller said. "Jack understood his role within the framework of our team and waited for his opportunities to shine on the field. He filled in against Walsh, excelling on defense and scoring a magnificent goal in the second half. He stepped up in the second half against St. Ignatius to play right back and filled a huge void for us in the middle of the defense against University School. Jack made steady progress throughout the season and significant improvement from his sophomore year to this year."
Senior CJ Polak earned the Ash Graham Spirit Award.
"For the last two years, whether you watched CJ at practice or in a game, he always played with the same intensity," Haller said. "He always brought the best out of himself and his teammates and though he is not a loud or vocal leader, CJ led by example. Last year I commented that he was like a spark plug for us and a player who I would much rather have on our team than on the opposing team. CJ's work ethic was contagious and Ash would have loved to watch him on the soccer field. I wish I would have had the opportunity to coach CJ for four years instead of just two."
Senior Rishav Banerjee and Scott Schultz, a Hudson resident, both earned the John Breuker Coaches Award.
"Rishav has been a varsity member since his sophomore year, but because of the success of our team throughout the last three years, he has not received much recognition," Haller said. "However, he has compiled a three-year total of 28 goals and 20 assists.
"His performances in his attacking role within the team this year were outstanding and opened the field up for his other attacking teammates. Rishav also represented WRA in the Greater Akron District Select Senior All-Star Game.
"In order to have a season like we did, you need to be good, you need to have some luck and at various points throughout the season, you need to have a goalkeeper who makes some key saves. Scott did that for us this year.
"We played from behind only once this year, against St. Ignatius, and that lasted for only about 10 minutes.
"We can look back at our games against St. Ignatius, Walsh, CVCA, Hoban, Mansfield Christian, Berlin Hiland and University School and know that there were moments in those games where the momentum could have easily swung in the opponent's direction if not for a key save from Scott.
"He displayed great leadership both on and off the field this year and deserves this award."
Haller also pointed out the contributions made by sophomore Ryan Hassell, who scored 33 goals and had four assists this year.
"One cannot ignore Ryan's accomplishments," Haller said. "He has scored 56 goals during his two years at WRA and has been a handful for every defender he has played against."
In addition to the school awards, Silva was a first-team All-Ohio selection in Division III and the co-Player of the Year, while David Ma, a Hudson resident, was a second-team selection.
Finally, Haller was named Coach of the Year by the Greater Akron Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association for the second consecutive year.
"Anytime one receives a COY award, it usually is a reflection of your team and the team's success," Haller said. "The boys bought into who we wanted to be and how we wanted to play. When a group does that, then the limits are endless. The best part of this year was that we were good, but more importantly, the players are good people.
"I was honored to coach them this year."