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Lyons Township soccer team fittingly opens its Class 3A state title defense today (Wednesday, Aug. 25) against Sandburg, the last large-school team to win consecutive state championships in 2001 and 2002. While the Lions certainly have the potential to push for matching the Eagles’ back-to-back title run, LT coach Paul Labbato wisely is taking an incremental view of the upcoming season.

“Ultimately, every team’s goal is to win a state championship,” Labbato said. “Our realistic goals are to make a deep playoff run and get into the last week of the season [Supersectionals]. At that point, anything can happen.”

Virtually everything went right for the Lions (26-3 last season) en route to a 2-1 overtime victory against
Lake Zurich in last season’s state title game. The Lions reeled off 15 wins to close their remarkable run and posted 19 shutouts on the year.

On the flipside of the Lions’ first-ever soccer title, the team lost 13 players to graduation, notably all-state defender Billy McGuinness (Princeton), Chris Meingast (Wright State), Sully Fox and Brian Heimerdinger (Western Michigan).

“Obviously, last year was very special,” Labbato said. “You can coach 20 years and never get to be a part of that [state championship] game let alone win it. Moving forward though, we will be defending a state title with not a lot of players that were on last year’s team. We’re going to have to gain respect this season because every team will give us their best shot.”

The Lions reloaded with the luxury of having several key returnees, including Division I prospects in forward Horacio Sanchez (14 goals in 2009), midfielder Kyle Kurfirst and midfielder/forward Elliot Borge.

“Our goal is to repeat as state champions,” said Sanchez, who played for the Chicago Fire Juniors this summer. “I think the strength of our team is that everybody has the will to win. My job along with guys like Kyle and Elliot is to be a leader and keep our team together.”

Other seniors expected to play major roles this season include goalkeeper Kevin Beglen, midfielder/defender Alex Economou, defender Peter Kralovec-Kirchherr and midfielder Peter Grabek. Loaded with size and depth, the Lions will arguably be as versatile as they have ever been during Labbato’s successful four-year LT tenure.

“Coming off last year, the whole LT soccer program has high expectations,” Kurfirst said. “The good thing about winning a state championship is it makes you want to win another one. The bad thing is we’ll have a target on our back.”

Junior defender Matt Thomas and sophomore Brett Heimerdinger are expected to play key roles for the Lions as well this season.

“We’re going to be big and strong at every position,” Labbato said. “We could have guys all over 6-feet tall on the field in certain scenarios. We also project different scenarios where around 18 of our 21 varsity players can see action.”

Lyons will need to rely on such depth and versatility with a brutal schedule lined up this fall. Along with Sandburg, the Lions’ opponents include top-ranked Neuqua Valley, Class 2A defending state champ St. Viator, and three highly regarded West Suburban (Silver) Conference foes in Hinsdale Central, Oak Park and Downers Grove North.