By Gabriel Stovall
FOREST PARK, Ga. — Boris Rodas knew how to sum up his soccer coach’s philosophy in one succinct sentence.
“Good enough is not good enough,” Rodas said after Forest Park’s Tuesday practice. “That’s what coach Shane Pulliam always says. We’ve got to be improving ourselves every day.”
That’s why the Forest Park Panthers soccer team hasn’t been satisfied, despite what Pulliam called a “season of firsts.”
First time a Clayton County team has been nationally ranked. Forest Park achieved it, climbing to No. 49 in the country based on the Rise Magazine and Top Drawer Soccer polls.
First time a Clayton County team had been regionally ranked. The Panthers were ranked 14th in the southeast region, not to mention ninth in Class AAAAA before dropping a match to Starr’s Mill out of Fayette County, long considered a haven for soccer in Georgia.
And if the Panthers (12-3) can get past Lithia Springs in the Sweet 16 of the Class AAAAA tournament, it will also mark the first time a Forest Park soccer club has advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Not bad for a coach who showed up almost just a month and a half away from the start of the 2014 season to a team who had the individual talent to make noise but was void of a team concept.
“This year has been great,” said senior goalkeeper Eddie Mathis-Gomez, who was recently named to the All-Region 4-AAAAA first team. “It’s much better than last year. When Coach came in, he came in kind of in the middle of things, and that’s when we started doing better toward the end of the season. Before that we were just playing like you play in rec leagues around here, you know. We were just out here for fun.”
And they’re still having fun. Pulliam’s just made sure to add a side of strategy with it. Like creating a triangle around the ball in order to “wall out” an opposing defender. Or learning how to strategically jump on an opposing team aggressively, while not allowing themselves to get caught napping on the field.
“You’ve gotta hurry up and get set,” Pulliam yelled out to his team from the sidelines during practice. “Lithia Springs ain’t gonna wait on you to get set.”
It’s that kind of instruction that Mathis-Gomez said was missing in times past.
“Last year we never did that kind of stuff or heard that kind of stuff,” he said. “We just tried to take on players one on one by ourselves. This year (Pulliam) has us playing as a team right now. He brought the seriousness and we started winning.”
Not that the Panthers were a terrible team in 2014. Gilliam’s first squad finished 11-5, ending the season with a loss to then-No. 2 Greenbriar, a perennial state power.
This year’s progress was more evident, even in the losses, like a 2-1 setback to top-ranked McIntosh — a game that Pulliam probably still wishes he could have back. Nevertheless, it shows that Forest Park, a year more experienced with multiple returning players, is closer to crossing the threshold from a good to great team.
“Well, I think there are a lot of people starting to stand up and take notice of what we’re doing over here,” Pulliam said. “Last year, nobody came out and interviewed. No papers were involved. But last year we learned how to play. This year we’re using how we learned to play last year to be better this year.”
It’s paid off both individually and collectively as Forest Park placed both Mathis-Gomez, Federico Allen and Rodas on the All-region first team. Rodas was named co-player of the year.
Then there’s senior captain Anthony Fernandez who’s been a four-year starter, Darwin Flores-Cruz who also is a captain and two-year starter, along with freshmen Kevin Anariba and Elvin Eldorado. Eldorado scored the game winning goal in both the first round of the state tournament and a momentum-swinging, go-ahead goal against two-time state runner-up Oconee County back in February.
So if it seems like Pulliam’s naming off the whole team in an attempt to not single anyone out, well, it’s not that he doesn’t want to single anyone out. According to Rodas, he can’t.
“We play as a team,” Rodas said. “It’s not individual. It’s not only me or one player. We play for the honor of all of us. It’s the team.”
Sounds like Rodas has been paying attention to Pulliam’s speeches.
“You know, chemistry is a big part of winning,” Pulliam said. “That’s what I keep telling these guys. And sometimes with chemistry it comes down to who goes on the field and who doesn’t. The majority of these players feel comfortable with each other. And I’m pretty sure they work hard for me, but I know it’s even more that they work hard for each other.”
And Pulliam is hoping that the hard work will pay off — not just in more state tournament wins, but in a growing appreciation of the team’s success from both the school and Forest Park community.
“Somebody asked me the other day if there was going to be a school-wide recognition or something for us,” Pulliam said. “And I laughed and said that school spirit here was kind of like the Holy Ghost. You don’t necessarily see it, but you hope it’s there. Hopefully what we’re doing around here will catch on and get the kids and community excited.”