Bartlett High's boys soccer program has struggled in recent decades -- terribly. Season after season, a match against the Golden Bears all but guaranteed opposing teams a victory and an opportunity for younger players to gain varsity minutes on the pitch.
From 1995 to 2003, Bartlett scraped up just one Cook Inlet Conference win. The Golden Bears earned one conference victory in each of the next three seasons.
In 2005 and 2006, they achieved limited success, placing sixth among eight teams during the CIC regular season. Bartlett followed that with another tough stretch, winning just two games in five years, including four straight winless seasons, all while dealing with a revolving door of coaches.
Then Matt Froehle returned. A 1990 Bartlett grad, Froehle took over the moribundprogram last season with a goal to make the Golden Bears competitive.
"We started immediately trying to change the culture," he said. "We deserve to be competing."
Not only are the Golden Bears competing, they've done something no Bartlett team has done since 2009 -- win. Bartlett opened this season with two straight conference wins and is currently 2-1 in the CIC and 2-2 overall.
Altering the players' mentality was second on Froehle's checklist. First, he needed to increase participation. With help from students and faculty, he spread the word at the school, and this season Bartlett had enough numbers to field JV and varsity teams. Froehle said his returning players were vital in recruiting.
"The leaders on the team took initiative," he said.
Leaders like Justin DeHart. A senior captain, DeHart said the difference from his first varsity season three years ago to this year's team is the team's mindset.
"We take it a lot more serious than in years past," he said. "Now, we expect to compete. It's not about keeping the score down. It's about trying to win."
Also a member of Bartlett's hockey team -- which earned its first conference victory since 2005 in November -- DeHart knows better than most how it feels to be a perennial last-place CIC team. That's what made the start to his final high school soccer season so sweet. The Golden Bears blanked East 3-0 in the March 25 season-opener and followed with a 5-1 blowout of Eagle River four days later.
"It was pretty special," DeHart said.
The quest for those long overdue wins began well before the first day of practice. DeHart said between 30 and 40 athletes attended offseason training, something that was nonexistent in the past. Preseason work made Bartlett a much-improved squad, he said.
"We have a starting 11 that can compete with anyone in the district," DeHart said.
Bartlett's quick turnaround surprised DeHart. He gave most of the credit to Froehle, who played college soccer at St. John's (Minn.) University and professionally in the United Soccer League.
"He can impress that knowledge on us," DeHart said. "Everything we've needed to touch on we've touched on," he added. "We're well on our way to being a dominant force."
Before a shift in mentality and on-field performance could occur, Froehle had to redefine what success meant for Bartlett.
"Success for us last year was to compete," he said. "Now our goal is to win games."
Winning is certainly a major difference for the Golden Bears, but their attitude during losses is just as much of an indicator of change, Froehle said, citing Tuesday's 3-0 loss to South. A matchup between Bartlett and the defending state champion Wolverines -- who have played for a state title seven times since 2005, winning five -- used to end in a lopsided loss for the Golden Bears. This time, instead of folding after trailing 2-0 at halftime, Froehle said, Bartlett continued to push in the second half and generated scoring chances while holding South to one goal.
"We kept playing ball," he said. "In the past, it would have been exponential as the game went on."
Tuesday's loss proves Bartlett can play with anyone, DeHart said. It also adds legitimacy to the Golden Bears' goal of finishing third in the conference and earning a state berth.
"Knowing we have the ability to pressure these top teams ... is a great feeling," DeHart said.
Reach Mike Nesper at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Dimond 6, West 0
Cole Fox netted a hat trick to lead Dimond past West 6-0 in conference action Tuesday at The Dome.
Trask Shamburg and James Aguilar also scored for the Lynx. Jack Sedor and Dominic Caryahwea recorded two assists apiece for Dimond, which one assist apiece from Chandler Lokanin and Matt Cerveny.
By MIKE NESPER