By Bob Narang

Before the start of Saturday’s highly-anticipated PepsiCo Showdown match against top seed Morton, Minooka senior midfielder Jared Avalos provided a glimpse of his team’s attitude.

With five starters returning from last season’s 16-5 squad that won a regional championship and lost 3-2 to state-powerhouse Peoria Notre Dame in a Class 3A sectional semifinal, the No. 16 seeded Indians had their sights on another big opponent in the largest high school soccer tournament in the U.S. Morton, from the Berwyn-Cicero area, is the No. 1 seed of the ChicagoTOPSoccer bracket, which is named after the local nonprofit that brings players with intellectual disabilities and physical impairments together with able bodied volunteers to learn and play soccer.

“(Minooka) has definitely put (its) name out there,” Avalos said. “It’s pretty cool to have our name out there. Minooka is not known as a soccer school.”

Avalos and his teammates backed up their words with a strong performance, losing 1-0 to Morton in a shootout, which the Mustangs won 4-2 in penalty kicks.

Minooka coach Nate Spriggs said his players relished the opportunity to play Morton, a change in attitude that reflects the program’s push toward competing for championships.

“We might not have as much talent as some teams, but nobody is going to play harder than us,” Spriggs said. “Sometimes when your talent level isn’t as high as others, your work effort carries you to victories.”

The first-year head coach knows his program is headed in an upward direction. The Indians have established a solid feeder system, starting with kids at age 7 that sends all local players directly into the Minooka program.

“The program definitely has been on the rise, and a lot of that is from our feeder club,” Spriggs said. “It’s nice because the kids from the surrounding towns all play together, so as they come into our program having played together for a long time. It really has helped our high school program make an upswing lately.”

For now, the Indians will lean on the leadership and experience from their five returning starters: Avalos, Erik Lakota, Jake Westerhoff, Blake Brandenburg and Tim Doody.

“Our backline, we have to definitely work on that,” Spriggs said. “It’s a work in progress getting those guys to communicate.

“We’ve got four or five guys we rotate, and we’re trying to find a mix of them working together. Our senior leadership is the key for us and will set the tone for us and how hard we play.”

Minooka, which opened the season with a 4-0 win over Plainfield East, is 3-2-1 heading into Tuesday’s showdown with Lyons in the second round of the PepsiCo Showdown. In the 10-team Southwest Prairie Conference, the Indians are hoping to be a contender for the conference crown and duplicate last season’s playoff run.

“Last year we learned that hard work pays off,” Avalos said. “We really enjoyed the taste of what it’s like to play on that stage. We want it again this year.”