Cherry Hill East boys soccer found itself in uncharted territory entering the final week of September.
Cherry Hill East hadn’t had a season with double-digit wins since 2012, yet only nine games into 2019, the team was already 5-2-2 in the competitive Olympic Conference American Division. The Cougars were ranked in the top eight of the South Jersey Coaches Association’s first poll of the season and were coming off a 3-0 victory over previously unbeaten Eastern, a team Cherry Hill East hadn’t beaten since 2012.
EAST BEATS EASTERN 3-0!
Our first victory against the Vikings since 2012! Goals: Adam Blumenthal,Eddie Grant,Trey Shaw. Assists by Drew Luerhs,Kevin Lochbihler, and Eddie Grant. Matt Randall with the shutout!@CHEastAthletics @CherryHillFC @HSSportsNJ @RallyPhilly @cpsj
— Coaching Staff (@CHE_Boys_Soccer) September 18, 2019
Outsiders may be surprised at how much Cherry Hill East has improved in 2019. But internally, expectations were always high for the Cougars.
“At the end of last year was when we started to get excited,” senior Kevin Lochbihler said. “We’ve been coming out in the summer a lot, and once we started working with all of the players, we realized we were going to have a pretty good team.”
Cherry Hill East has gotten a boost this season with two talented players on both sides of the ball returning to the starting lineup. After missing his junior year to play Development Academy soccer, Lochbihler opted to return to Cherry Hill East for his senior season and lead the defense. Offensively, the Cougars welcomed back senior Eddie Grant, one of the Olympic Conference’s top goal scorers so far in 2019. Grant returned to the field after suffering a broken femur midway through last season.
Losing Grant in late September of 2018 was huge for Cherry Hill East. The team had picked up key divisional wins over Cherokee and Shawnee prior to Grant’s injury and was sitting around the .500 mark with Grant in the lineup. After Grant went down, Cherry Hill East lost four of its next five games and failed to qualify for the playoffs.
“It took a lot of recovery,” Grant said. “At first, I couldn’t comprehend that it was really happening. As the weeks went by, it was really depressing and it put me down a little bit. But a lot of my teammates and my friends were supportive in my recovery and helped me out.”
Melograna was impressed with Grant’s work ethic during his recovery. Grant participated in summer workouts with the team and was an offensive force in the first half for Cherry Hill East, scoring six goals in the team’s first nine games.
“His soccer IQ is off the charts,” Melograna said. “I don’t think anyone knows what he went through in his rehab to be ready for this summer.”
— Coaching Staff (@CHE_Boys_Soccer) September 10, 2019
Grant wasn’t sure what his individual statistics would look like in 2019 as he wasn’t sure whether he’d be playing more as a defensive midfielder or on the attack this season.
“It helps to have a kid like Kevin Lochbihler come in who can really control the defense so I know that if I step up a little bit further to get into the attack, there’s a strong player back there,” Grant said.
Lochbihler’s return to Cherry Hill East has been a huge plus for the Cougars. Lochbihler was a key part of the Cougars’ lineup in 2017 as a sophomore before opting to play Development Academy soccer with Continental FC Delco in 2018. After skipping the 2018 high school season, Lochbihler was ready to return to Cherry Hill East in 2019.
“I knew our high school team would be pretty good this year and I thought it would be a lot of fun to be able to stay local and play with all of my friends,” he said.
Grant and Lochbihler sensed how much better the Cougars would be this year during summer workouts. They said the feeling surrounding the program is way different than when they were underclassmen in 2016 and 2017, where the Cougars combined for just seven wins across two seasons.
“One of the big differences is just the way we trust each other so much,” Grant said.
“This year, we have a lot more confidence in each other and we can trust each other,” Lochbihler said. “It gives us a lot of confidence moving forward.”
That confidence has led Cherry Hill East to a strong first half. The Cougars are on pace for their first playoff appearance since 2015 as well as their first Coaches Tournament appearance since 2012. Cherry Hill East has already accomplished a lot so far in 2019, yet Grant feels the team is just scratching the surface.
“I don’t think we’re done yet,” Grant said. “It doesn’t pay off until we get some more wins down the road and some games in the postseason. I’ve never played in the playoffs, so I’m looking forward to it.”