Sports

Defensive-minded raider

By CASEY OLSON

The Mirror

Thomas Jefferson senior Brandon Sprague knows that defense wins championships.

This philosophy is why the Raider boys soccer team has been so successful in the past, including winning the last two South Puget Sound League South Division championships.

But Sprague, a starter in the Raiders’ backfield for the past three years, also knows that defensive players don’t get the credit that comes to the high-profile, goal-scoring forwards. That’s just how it works. A defensive player in soccer is kind of like an offensive lineman on the football field.

“I don’t get no love,” Sprague said with a laugh. “I’m kind of behind the scenes and a shutout is good enough for me.”

Shutouts have been kind of the norm for the Raiders’ defense over the past few years. Jefferson has led the SPSL South in goals allowed during Sprague’s career and have given up only one in their first four games this season — three ties and a 2-0 win over Emerald Ridge.

TJ head coach Darren Sawatzky gives a lot of the credit to the play of Sprague in the middle of the Raider defense.

“He sees the game real well,” said Sawatzky. “He rarely makes a mistake back there. He is very technically sound.”

Sprague isn’t one of the fastest or the biggest defenders in the SPSL South. But he makes up for it with his knowledge of the game.

“I’ve been playing for so long that I kind of know what is going to happen,” said Sprague, who is set to sign a scholarship offer to play soccer next season at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “I think I’m a little bit smarter.”

But Sprague’s soccer smarts got a little bit testy during a game last week against Federal Way school district rival Todd Beamer. For the first time in his high school career, the usually soft-spoken sweeper was issued a red card by the referee during the 1-1 tie with Beamer. The card, which came after a little scuffle with a Titan forward late in the second half, got him thrown out of the game and forced him to miss TJ’s match Friday against Emerald Ridge.

“He is the calmest, most composed kid ever,” Sawatzky said. “He just got frustrated and whacked a kid. It was pretty surprising.”

“I just lost my composure for a couple minutes,” Sprague said. “I got caught up with all the commotion. It was a five-second mishap and it cost the team.”

But Sprague’s absence from the lineup was just one of the numerous games some of the Raiders’ best players have missed early in the 2005 season. Jefferson, one of the preseason favorites to win the SPSL South crown again, have yet to field their projected starting lineup because of injuries, academic problems and Sprague’s red card.

All-league midfielder Lamar Neagle played his first game of the year Friday because of an ankle injury and another midfielder, Calvin Walsh, broke three toes in the Raiders’ first game of the season. Also, starting forward Aaron Nistrian has been academically ineligible.

“You take all those guys out and I got a very much pieced-together lineup,” said Sawatzky, whose nine-year professional soccer career came to an end after the 2004 season with the Seattle Sounders as the franchise’s No. 3 all-time scorer. “They are basically all my best players. When we get them back we will make a good push.”

Something that will help the 1-0-3 Raiders this year is the fact that games don’t officially count in the SPSL South regular season standings until April 15. That’s because there are 10 teams in the division and Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) rules allow only 16 matches.

“I don’t really like it,” Sawatzky said. “But this year it won’t be a bad thing for our boys.”

“We just need to come together as a team,” Sprague said. “We are a little bit too individual right now. It’s not about being flashy. It’s about grit and grind.”

Flashy isn’t a word that is ever used to describe Sprague’s game. The senior hasn’t scored a goal since his sophomore year at TJ. That year he started the first part of the season as a midfielder and tallied two scores.

“It was kind of an enjoyment to score,” Sprague said with a smile. “You can’t really explain it. But then I moved back to sweeper midway through the year and now I’m not that big of a goal scorer.”

Remember, Sprague knows that defense wins championships.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565, sports@fedwaymirror.com

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