It took four years, but Central Cabarrus has finally been able to replenish its stock of talented boys soccer players.
Like many of Central Cabarrus' sports teams, the boys soccer roster was depleted by the opening of Harrisburg Hickory Ridge High in 2007. As a result, the Vikings fell on hard times, annually finishing in the bottom half of their conference.
In a matter of one season, however, Central's standing in the South Piedmont 3A has gone from next-to-worst all the way to first. The Vikings were league champs this year for the first time since 1999.
They were scheduled to open the 3A state playoffs at home on Tuesday against Eden Morehead.
Central's rise from obscurity has coincided with Mike Dye's tenure as coach. When he arrived for the 2008 season, Central was playing its final season in class 4A, in the ME-CA 7 Conference.
"There was a lack of higher-skill-level players," said Dye. "There weren't a lot of club players. Through the first season, I noticed a mindset that was not used to winning. That carried on through the following two seasons."
Dye doesn't have Central's exact win-loss record from that first season, but he figures the Vikings' only conference victories were against West Charlotte. The next season, Central was part of the realignment that placed all of Cabarrus County's schools in the South Piedmont Conference.
In 2009, the Vikings improved but still struggled to a 5-12-1 overall record and 4-8-1 in the conference. That was good enough for fifth place and a berth in the state playoffs. Charlotte Catholic ran over the Vikings 9-0 in the first round.
Last year, Central matched its overall win total from the season before (5-14-1) but slipped to seventh in the league standings with a 2-11-1 mark.
Seniors Erick Ortiz and Justin Morgan were among the returning players who noticed a difference among the players from the previous season.
"We felt we had a big opportunity to do some things this year," Morgan said. "We struggled with our seniors last year and their commitment to the team."
Ortiz and Morgan and others helped organize informal off-season workouts with their teammates. When Dye wasn't holding practices, players were conducting their own drills and scrimmages.
While the Vikings honed their skills, building team chemistry and thinking about a possible conference championship in 2011, they still needed a couple of confidence-boosting victories season to change their mindset.
Their main rivals and the perennial conference championship contenders, Hickory Ridge and Jay M. Robinson, had owned them over the past couple of seasons. Within a six-day period in early September, Central shut out both and took an early lead in the league standings.
A week later, the Vikings fell behind by two goals in a game against Northwest Cabarrus. It was the type of game where Central would have folded in previous years. Led by sophomore midfielder Martin Melendez's two second-half goals, however, the Vikings came back to win 5-3.
On Oct. 13, Central slipped past 2A power Salisbury 1-0 on a goal by freshman Jonathon Arellano, handing the Hornets their only loss this season.