‘Freshman Trio of Doom’ leading White Buffaloes
By Grant Lucas
MADRAS — Clark Jones is laughing at me.
His Madras boys soccer squad screamed through its schedule unbeaten until last Thursday and is in position to take the Tri-Valley Conference title. His White Buffaloes, as young as they are, seem poised to make waves once they reach the Class 4A postseason.
Oh, how dominant Jones and Co. have been this season. And oh, how familiar this story sounds.
Five years ago, Madras followed a similar path, albeit with a more experienced roster. In 2010, the White Buffaloes tore through the regular season, claiming the TVC crown and wearing it all the way to the semifinals of the 4A state playoffs.
Through 11 matches this season, Madras, at 5-1-1 in TVC play and 8-1-2 overall, sits alone atop the league standings with three regular-season matches remaining. The Buffs have outscored opponents 55-17 and are on pace to finish better than they did in that banner season five years ago.
But here is Jones … laughing at me. He does not like comparing current seasons with the past, especially that 2010 campaign, which the seventh-year Madras coach describes as “rarefied air.” Even with only a week left in the regular season, Jones cannot predict what this group can accomplish. He confirms as much … laughing.
“I don’t want to brag them up yet,” he chuckles. “That’s like a curse.”
Jones explains his reservations, noting that of the 18 players on the White Buffaloes roster, 10 are underclassmen and six of them are freshmen. That includes a set of “workhorses,” as Jones describes them: freshman Alex Diaz, who heading into this past Thursday’s Molalla match (the Buffs’ lone loss of the year) had scored at least one goal in seven straight games; freshman Andres Acuna, who provides a strong presence in the midfield; and freshman Melchor Olivera, who Jones says “plays beyond his age.”
Madras starts as many as four freshmen each match, Jones continues, alongside several sophomores and a few juniors. One of the few seniors on the roster to begin the season is no longer with the team for disciplinary reasons, creating a bit of a leadership void in the Buffs’ push toward the postseason.
While Jones is hesitant to talk up his squad, he doesn’t really need to. The White Buffaloes, on the field, do it themselves — even if they did harbor a few doubts in the season’s outset. Maybe the 2015 campaign would be “just an average season,” as Diaz remembers thinking before the season, because of the team’s youth and inexperience. Acuna recalls wondering if he, or any of the other underclassmen, would even contribute significantly.
The two freshmen reflect on those preseason uncertainties with smiles, with even a few snickers. They, as well as Olivera (the “freshman trio of doom,” as Jones calls them), were aiming for a handful of victories this year, perhaps even sneak into second place in the Tri-Valley Conference, as Madras did last season on its way to the program’s first state playoff appearance since 2010.
Yet the White Buffaloes blasted out of the starting blocks, racking up 55 goals (the fourth-most in 4A) while playing the second-toughest schedule in the classification, which incorporates the winning percentages of opponents and their opponents. The young Buffs have surprised themselves as they have the rest of the TVC.
“They probably think that we don’t go against the best teams,” Olivera says of opponents looking at Madras’ youthful roster. “So they pretty much doubt us. … They see that we can do more now.”
Jones sees that as well. He sees how the White Buffaloes have easily made the transition from youth and JV soccer to the speedier and more physical play at the varsity level, how from the season opener they have played and communicated as a unit rather than relying on a lone playmaker. The Buffs do not play for themselves but for each other — a significant factor in their success thus far and a factor that could play a big role in a deep postseason run.
“That’s what my goal is, that we have a great team, that there’s no ‘what ifs’ at the end,” Jones says. Still, he adds, Jones cannot guarantee any particular season-end outcome, although the trajectory Madras is on suggests a decorated conclusion — even if Jones does not like comparing seasons.
Five years ago, the White Buffaloes advanced to the semifinals, falling just shy of the program’s first state final appearance. Through 11 games that season, Madras scored 44 goals for a goal differential of 25 (compared with 55 goals and a differential of 38 this year) to compile a 9-2 overall record (8-1-2 in 2015) and a 6-2 mark (5-1-1 in 2015) in TVC play. More noteworthy, however, is that talent and leadership is bountiful with this season’s squad, Jones notes, and not limited to just a few players as it was in 2010.
“I knew they were good. I didn’t think they’d be this good,” Jones says. “I didn’t think they’d be physically ready. I knew they had the ball skills. I knew they had the communication and the passing. But I didn’t expect them to be as physical and as athletic as they are. That, I think, is the main thing: You’ve got skills plus athleticism. That’s a pretty good recipe for success.”
The White Buffaloes’ early-season nerves have since settled. Preseason expectations have since been replaced by loftier goals. “Playoffs, maybe more.” Acuna says. Diaz quickly jumps in: “State. Winning state.”