Leechburg, Apollo-Ridge boys soccer ready to take on WPIAL competition together

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 | 12:01 AM

For the first time in the history of their schools, Apollo-Ridge and Leechburg will have a boys soccer program as the two schools have formed in a co-op agreement.

Building a program from scratch is no easy task. It involves garnering interest from a student body — in this case two student bodies — building a culture, and bonding a team together to perform at its highest level.

It’s like putting together a puzzle, and coach Bradley Walker — who also is the Leechburg Area School District business manager — is excited for the opportunity.

“Building a program is very tough and very stressful,” Walker said. “However, since I’ve been through it before and my assistant coach has been through it with me, and I don’t want to say it’s going to be the same, we think we are the right people to do it again.”

When Walker took over the program at Highlands, the team had just been through an off-the-field controversy where two 17-year-old players were accused of duct taping an autistic teammate to a soccer goal post. There only were 13 players on the team when he started; when he left, the Golden Rams were a borderline playoff team, and the roster had 36 players.

It took a lot of hard work and time to turn Highlands around. Although there are a few similarities between the situations, Walker was tasked with rebuilding the program at Highlands. At Leechburg, he’ll be starting from scratch.

“I took over something that had fallen apart at Highlands,” Walker said. “This is a good culture here. We just need to grow the numbers. The kids want to be here. They work their butts off so it’s totally different.”

When Walker opened team sign-ups in the spring, just north of 20 players signed up for summer workouts. But as time wore on, numbers started to drop during the voluntary sessions. That hasn’t stopped Walker from continuing to try and build the program. When camp opens Aug. 12, Walker expects to have around 12-13 players.

Even with the small numbers, Walker believes they’ll be in a good position to grow during their inaugural year.

“It’s worrisome from a competitive standpoint. With an 18-game season, it’s going to be tough to compete day in and day out with that slim of a roster,” Walker said. “But the caveat is that these kids are going to grow astronomically, and in two or three years, we’re gonna start competing.”

Oftentimes with a new program, a large class of graduating seniors can often derail a program after it gets started; Walker won’t have to go through that right away. As it stands right now, his roster is made up of underclassmen and close to half, if not more, of the roster is made up of freshmen with a soccer background.

Having that youth and experience will allow Walker to build for the future. It also could lead to growing pains this fall.

“I’ve been in this situation before, I know the growing pains, I know the lumps, so keeping them happy, keeping them level headed and not getting down on themselves when they get beat, that’s my job this year,” Walker said. “We want to compete with the teams we can compete with, and when we get into a dog fight with a big school, don’t hang your heads on that. Just a positive mentality through the year.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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