Briarwood looks to break massive wall and make playoffs

Published 10:21 am Thursday, February 1, 2024

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By TYLER RALEY | Special to the Reporter

Briarwood has high hopes of making its way back into the state playoffs this year, a place it has not faced in quite some time.

After posting a great record of 13-4-2 last season, second-year head coach Mike Bautista feels highly optimistic about the team’s mindset going into this season.

“The guys enjoy each other,” Bautista said. “This is a more mature team than we’ve had in the past as I’ve started a lot of youngsters but now they’re actually getting older. So a lot of these guys have grown up together since the early days at Briarwood, and there’s a sense of excitement as this crew is getting through to their upper-class years.”

Not only is the team’s mindset in a great place, but so is Bautista himself. He knows that not having the pressures of being in the first year at the helm is making his life a lot easier.

“For me on my end, I feel really, really just excited about this particular season,” Bautista said. “Due to, one, it’s the second year, I have a little more experience under my belt, but also this crew of guys. They’ve been impressing me with how much they’re putting in and the little details of things.”

While the morale may be high now, both Bautista and his players understand that they want more than just being ‘good’ in practice. They want to keep pushing expectations higher as the season progresses, even with a newer style of play.

Players like junior midfielder Sawyer Felton understand the challenge in that, but also believe the Lions can still achieve their goals.

“This new formation is just going to be a big change for everybody on the team,” Felton said. “We always have to stay positive with each other and just come for the next practice. So I’d say that’s a good start.”

While Briarwood is changing up its look in ways, Bautista believes that it will help his team out in the long run as they face an incredibly difficult schedule in 2024.

“I think the IQ is higher,” Bautista said. “So the idea of having a more flexible approach is something, at least at this point early on, we want to tap into. In essence, when it comes to game time, using that flexibility I think would help us out when it comes to the schedule we have, which is probably the hardest schedule we’ve ever had.”

It is a bold statement but definitely a true one. Six out of the first seven teams that the Lions play come out of Class 7A, with three of them being county foes. Then, there is the area filled with talent from Pelham, Indian Springs and Helena.

The team knows that the journey will not be easy, but that does not stop them from having high aspirations.

“The end goal is playoffs and further if we can,” senior goalkeeper Emerson Maughan said. “Getting out of area is the first step for sure.”

After the Briarwood was unable to make it out of its area last season due to goal differential, the offseason has provided time to reflect and build a fire within the program.

With eight starters returning and star player Matthias Leib having graduated and moved on, Bautista knows his kids have to make a transition in identity. On the bright side, he thinks that his squad is prepared for that.

“There’s some identity that we have to find still I think,” Bautista said. “With [Leib] graduating, these younger guys coming in stepping into this role, now they’re the older guys. I think that identity is going to have to shift and that’s what’s fun about coaching. It’s the reloading aspect, it’s finding who we are now, and in the process of that, I think it shows that these guys haven’t grown that much. So I’m really excited about this crew.”

Part of that excitement comes from the goals that the players have. For Maughan, his mind is all focused on this team rallying together in his senior season.

“As a team, like [Bautista] was saying, we have to find a new identity,” Maughan said. “Find that, and then hopefully win some big games for sure. We have a tough, loaded schedule, so getting some key wins out of that would be nice.”

As for Bautista, this year is the year for him personally. He is ready to go out and help make history with the Lions.

“I’ve been here for five years now, or at least at Briarwood for five years, and I’ve been a close confidant of Shawn Brower,” Bautista said. “Even when he was still here, this is the longest drought in Briarwood history that we have not yet made the playoffs. It’s five years and running, which is since the COVID year basically, and going into that. That’s something on my end. It’s time, let’s do it.”

Briarwood’s journey towards that highly desired postseason begins when it plays at Thompson in its season opener on Feb. 6, and at the Lakeshore Shootout on Feb. 9.