New year, same championship mentality

Senior Luke Leach, junior Elkin Bonilla-Hernandez and junior Shane Lovett hope to instill the values of last year’s sectional champion Seneca boys soccer team into the next group of varsity players.

Seneca’s Elkin Bonilla-Hernandez fires a shot on goal during the Golden Eagles’ scrimmage against Trenton on Wednesday. Bonilla-Hernandez is one of the few returning varsity players from Seneca’s South Jersey Group 3 championship team in 2018.

Senior Luke Leach, junior Elkin Bonilla-Hernandez and junior Shane Lovett know what it’s like to embrace Seneca boys soccer’s key philosophy, “Win the day.”

The Golden Eagles did a ton of winning in 2018. They were unbeaten in Olympic Conference play, won the South Jersey Group 3 sectional title, and lost just two games, one in the South Jersey Coaches’ Tournament and the other in the NJSIAA Group 3 state semifinals.

Leach, Bonilla-Hernandez and Lovett are also three of the few players remaining from last year’s championship winning team. Seneca boys soccer may be defending conference and sectional champions entering 2019, but this year’s team is very different from last year’s after the Golden Eagles lost nine starters to graduation.

“We’re really just focused on this year,” Leach said. “It’s a whole new year, it’s a whole new group of players.”

Leach, Bonilla-Hernandez and Lovett are being asked to carry Seneca’s championship attitude and instill it into the next generation of players. The three are serving as captains this season and are passing down the lessons they learned in prior years to this year’s team.

“Coming in from eighth grade or a travel club team, you get to the high school varsity level and it’s just faster,”  Leach said. “You need to learn very quick. You need to learn that people are on you quick up here.”

Seneca’s Elkin Bonilla-Hernandez fires a shot on goal during the Golden Eagles’ scrimmage against Trenton on Wednesday. Bonilla-Hernandez is one of the few returning varsity players from Seneca’s South Jersey Group 3 championship team in 2018.

Lovett said one of the keys to Seneca’s success in 2018 was how every player on the team was held accountable. That accountability is something he hopes carries over into 2019.

“They were not afraid to tell each other when you did something wrong,” Lovett said of last year’s captains. “That’s a good thing.”

Assistant coach Chris Melograna saw a change in Leach, Bonilla-Hernandez and Lovett from the first day of preseason. He credited all three of them with stepping up as vocal leaders and also setting a good example on the field.

“They’ve been very valuable,” Melograna said of the three captains. “They’ve been probably our hardest workers. Last year, they were the younger guys, they weren’t the most vocal. Now they are.”

What changed in the three leaders from last year to this year? Bonilla-Hernandez summed up the change in one word.

“Confidence,” Bonilla-Hernandez said, adding that last year’s championship run gave the program a huge boost.

While Seneca has lost a slew of starters in the offseason, the team does return its top two offensive players from last year. Leach led the team with 18 goals in 2018, and Bonilla-Hernandez was second with 10. With both of them back, the Golden Eagles will have plenty of proven offensive talent on the field opening day.

The bigger area of focus early in preseason was on the defensive end, where Seneca is plugging in a new group of starters into the lineup. Keeping a proper defensive shape was a point of emphasis in the season’s first week of practices as well as in Seneca’s first scrimmage last Wednesday against Trenton.

“We’re working on a lot of defense, where we should be on the field and what we should be doing off the ball,” Melograna said. “It’s something we’ll be working on tomorrow and the next couple of weeks.”

The biggest goal for Seneca is to get all of its new varsity players up to speed as fast as possible prior to the team’s first game at home on Sept. 3 against district rival Shawnee. Leach and his fellow captains realize the team won’t have any easy games this year, saying everyone will be aiming to take down the defending champions in 2019. The only way to prepare for such a task is to keep embracing the philosophy that won Seneca a title last year, “Win the day.”

“Our work rate is going to stay the same,” Lovett said. “We have something even more to prove this year. Everyone is going to want to take us down.”