Lincoln East boys soccer accepting the challenge under new coach
As Lincoln East’s boys’ soccer team gathers for practice on a Tuesday evening in April, there is a distinct lack of energy.
The Spartans are coming off a 4-1 loss to Gretna the night before, and they have another game the next day. The late-season grind has the team tired and hurt, as shown by the pair of injured starters sitting on the sidelines.
The recent cold weather has turned the grass brown and dead on fields at the Cornhusker Council Boy Scouts of America complex, the team’s regular practice location.
The energy picks up as the drills begin, with head coach Colin Smitsek offering instruction, criticism and encouragement, sometimes all at once.
“He knows the game very well,” senior Brandon Bakenhus said. “He keeps us on a fine line. He knows a lot more about soccer than I do. At times, he has to dumb it down.”
Smitsek is in his first year as East’s coach, and he has big shoes to fill.
The last coach, Jeff Hoham, had been with the program since 1995 and was the head coach since 2002. He was the head coach of four of the six state championship teams in school history. Eleven of Hoham’s 17 seasons ended with a state tournament appearance. Hoham retired from coaching following the 2017 season.
Smitsek is aware of the challenge.
“I’ve said to the lads before, East High School has the second most appearances at state in high school history for Nebraska, so great legacy,” he said. “It is a transition obviously in that sense, but ultimately they’re still playing the same game, it’s just me asking them to do it slightly differently than possibly what was asked previously with a different coach.”
It’s not only Smitsek’s first year at East, but also his first year as a high school coach.
He came to the United States in 2001 after growing up in Ripley, a village in Surrey, England. He has coached the youth girls program for FC Dallas and girls club teams at Lincoln’s Elite Girls Academy, so coaching boys is a new experience, too.
“I kind of wanted the change of speed with the boys and to test myself in a high school environment,” Smitsek said. “Girls are definitely a different kettle of fish, but enjoyable one none the less. But different for sure.”
For the players, having a coach besides Hoham on the sideline may be an adjustment, but it’s one high school soccer players, who play on different club teams in the offseason, are used to making.
”We just keep playing as a team together,” Michael Gaer, a senior midfielder said. “Some of these kids I’ve been playing with for the past three years now, so the chemistry is still there.”
It has still been an up-and-down season for the Spartans, who have had to deal with injuries and lineup changes. With the loss of players from last season to graduation and transfers, Smitsek said younger players have been forced into important roles.
“From a depth point of view, we do have the depth, but I think some of it is self-confidence,” he said. “So as soon as somebody goes down injured, it makes us un-flexible in all honesty. In my opinion, we’re not as elastic as we need to be in terms of being able to change or adapt or something like that in the moment on the fly or simply at halftime.”
With fewer healthy bodies available for practice, Colin throws on a jersey and jumps into the scrimmage. He still possesses speed and skill as he thwarts several scoring attempts by the starters from his defensive position.
Gaer, who is dealing with hip and groin injuries, and Bakenhus, who has a sprained ankle, both expect to be back on the field by districts. Gaer said he thinks the team is capable of making a run and going to state.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “It depends on who we get seeded against in districts. But I don’t think there’s a team we should worry about.”