Spud Ward scored a team-high 11 goals for Catlin Gabel last season. (Photo by Thomas Widdows)
Spud Ward scored a team-high 11 goals for Catlin Gabel last season. (Photo by Thomas Widdows)

Catlin Gabel wasn’t exactly the most physically fearsome boys soccer team last year, as coach Peter Shulman noted early in the season.

Still, the Eagles overcame those limitations to win the 3A/2A/1A title, compensating for their lack of physicality with a head-spinning passing game.

Now, Catlin Gabel is back nearly intact, and with a year of maturity under their belts, the Eagles should be more dangerous than ever. Voted No. 1 in the OSAAtoday preseason coaches poll, they will go for their third state championship in four seasons and 15th overall.

They opened the season Tuesday with an impressive 6-1 win over North Marion, last year's 4A runner-up, as sophomore Felipe Rueda scored twice.

“They’re all bigger and stronger and faster than they were,” Shulman said. “Physically, they’re going to match up. I don’t think they’re going to be physically overmatched by anybody. They’ll hold their own.”

It’s a scary thought, considering Catlin Gabel is more skilled, too. The Eagles return 17 players and all but one starter from a team that went 14-1-4 and outscored opponents 69-11.

“What we’re going to need to do to be successful is keep that same sort of possession, playing-the-feet style,” Shulman said. “And having the patience and poise to take our chances. Probably our strongest suit is that we can move the ball quickly enough to unsettle defenses.”

Catlin Gabel graduated its emotional leader in Hansen Lian, but the Eagles can fill that leadership void with four captains in senior midfielders Spud Ward and Evan Karp, junior midfielder Kai Gamboa and junior defender Ezra Rich.

Ward led the team with 11 goals and nine assists last season.

“He’s a guy you want to have the ball once you get in or near the box,” Shulman said. “Really good decision maker. He can hurt you a lot of different ways.”

Karp, who played his first 2 ½ varsity seasons as a center defender and defensive midfielder, moved up front midway through last season and gave the offense a jolt.

“He can really play anywhere,” Shulman said. “He’s probably going to be a center back in college. He’s a really good passer, good in the air, and he’s got a fearsome shot.”

The Eagles are in excellent hands at goalkeeper with juniors Bowen Blair (11 shutouts last season) and Seby Tremblay, a transfer from Virginia. Gamboa and junior Cai Fernandez-Powell lead the defense.

Motivation will be an x-factor for Catlin Gabel.

“Last year’s team had lost in the finals the year before, and there were a lot of new kids, and I think they had a hunger,” Shulman said. “But they didn’t have the burden of expectations that some of my teams have had.

“Are you going to have the hunger to put in the extra work? Do you get complacent? Because I know competitors are going to be working very hard.”

As usual, the Eagles will be tested inside Special District 1 by powerhouse Oregon Episcopal. Last year, OES finished first in the district – handing Catlin Gabel its only defeat of the season – but the Eagles got payback with a 1-0 win over the Aardvarks in the state final.

“They’ve got most of their kids back, and they’ve got a ton of hunger,” Shulman said of OES, which is No. 2 in the coaches poll. “On paper, this is the best the two of our squads have been at the same time. Both teams look like they’re going to be terrific.”

Catlin Gabel’s nonleague schedule is loaded. Other than North Marion, the Eagles face two 4A quarterfinalists in Seaside and Valley Catholic and a 3A/2A/1A semifinalist in third-ranked Riverside.

“We try to get some bigger schools to play, and it’s tough to do it,” said Shulman, whose teams are 58-3-12 in the last four seasons. “I’m not worried about us if we take a metaphorical punch. I think that’s good. I think it helped us immeasurably to get beat last year.”