The South Mecklenburg boys' soccer team lost eight starters from last year to graduation, including five who are now playing college soccer. Coming into the season, the Sabres didn't have high expectations.
Despite having to deal with several injuries this year, the Sabres, led by senior captain Bennett Yort, are 10-3-1 (4-3 Southwestern 4A), ranked No. 10 in the EurosportScoreboard.com 4A state poll and in the hunt for a conference championship in the competitive Southwestern 4A.
"This year I actually wasn't expecting us to do that well because of all the seniors that we lost, but some of the guys who didn't have that big of a role on the team last year and some of the JV players that came up have really stepped up and we're doing pretty well," said Yort, 17.
The Sabres lost all but three of their starters, including Matt Brown (now playing at Virginia), Jake Keating (Charlotte) and Alex Chu (UNC Asheville). Last year's team was 20-3-3 and lost in the West Regional semifinals to conference rival Myers Park, the eventual state runner-up.
"All the seniors coming out this year knew there were some high expectations for them," said coach Jim Lynch, who has been at South Meck for 19 years.
One of those seniors is Yort, a 6-foot-3 center midfielder who Lynch said is the key part of the Sabres offense.
"Most of our offense in the midfield goes through him," said Lynch. "He sees the game well and he has the technical ability to deliver the ball."
Yort started playing soccer when he was 4 because his two older sisters, Kathryn and Mary Glenn, played club soccer growing up.
"My parents saw how much they enjoyed it and thought it would be a good thing for me," he said.
He joined Charlotte Soccer Academy when he was still living in Augusta, Ga., and moved to Charlotte with his mother for his last two years of high school (his dad still lives in Augusta) to cut down the commute.
Yort has the technical ability and soccer IQ that comes from years of playing, tallying 14 assists and 12 goals this year (through Oct. 6).
The senior has brought stability to a team that has battled injuries all year, the biggest of which was when the team's leading scorer Lucas De Oliviera sprained his ankle in the first half of South Meck's game against Ardrey Kell Sept. 7. Yort stepped up, scoring both goals in the team's 2-1 victory.
"That really showed us how good of a team we actually were, which a lot of people didn't expect," said Yort. "From that point on we had high expectations for our season and that just kind of put it into perspective, what we could do for the season."
Earlier in the season, South Meck beat No. 3 in the state Hough and tied No. 11 Lake Norman. But the Sabres have struggled since with the demanding conference schedule, losing to No. 6 Providence, No. 4 Myers Park and losing 2-1 in overtime in the rematch with Ardrey Kell last week.
De Oliviera returned during the Myers Park game.
Yort said it's tough to play good opponents nearly every game, but it prepares the team for the postseason.
"It's definitely going to help us out in the playoffs as we go farther because every game is a tough game," said Yort. "It just tests our desire to win because no matter what we're going to have to come out and play our hardest every game."
Yort, who committed to play college soccer at Furman next year, had no problem stepping into a leadership role, he said.
"I'm kind of the organizer of the team ... helping my teammates out, where they need to be and what they need to be doing," he said.
Yort had several goals for his senior season, one to finally beat Myers Park. All three of South Meck's losses last year came to the Mustangs. On top of that, he wants to win the conference and make a deep push into the playoffs. This team may be younger and less experienced than last year, but he thinks the Sabres have the ability to be a factor in the tournament.
"I think we've really worked as a team," said Yort. "Last year, we had a lot of really good individual players and this year we might not have the same talent as we did last year but we're playing as a team to make up for the loss."