Linfield’s commitment to a new defensive philosophy and ability to implement other tactical adjustments are key indicators of how well the Wildcats perform under first-year head coach Adam Howard in 2016.
But as the former Wildcat and member of Linfield’s most recent championship team takes reins of the program, one thing is for certain: the club’s predisposition to work hard is a great foundation for future success.
“The team’s work rate and effort have been everything we could have asked for. Their willingness to come to practice each and every day has been really positive,” Howard said. “They’ve bought into the adjustments and changes we’ve made as a program.”
Defensively, it starts in goal, where Jorge Rodriguez is back for his senior season. He enters the year with 11 career victories, a .714 save percentage and both the experience and athleticism to be a formidable last line of defense for the Wildcats.
“Jorge is going to be really important piece for us to be successful this season,” Howard said. “He has the ability to keep us in games.”
Helping to lead an organized defense is junior Aaron Barber-Axthelm, a reigning first team all-Northwest Conference selection and co-team captain. Howard and the Wildcats expect Barber-Axthelm to help manage and control the game, and get involved in as much as possible offensively. At 6-foot-1, he is a great target in the box.
Veterans Brian DeGrandmont and Rhys Lendio are expected to lead the “attack-style” brand of offense Howard hopes to deploy against the Northwest Conference. The two combined for a third of Linfield’s goals in 2015.
DeGrandmont has been a major part of the front line throughout his time at Linfield for his ability to create scoring opportunities both for himself and for teammates. Lendio, meanwhile, has steadily developed into a creative, dynamic player who could be extremely dangerous for the ‘Cats in his final season.
Newcomer and McMinnville native Isaias Flores should emerge as a key offensive contributor as he becomes more comfortable with the pace and physicality of the college game. Adding depth offensively are Dylan Leathers, Joey Grachek, Andrew Fischer and Jake Smith, all goal scorers a season ago.
In their quest to climb the conference standings – Linfield has not finished better than sixth since the 2006 season – and create a competitive, family-first culture, the Wildcats must focus on small, short-term goals and working hard each day.
“We want to make sure we take it one game at a time, and don’t look past opponents,” Howard said. “Keeping that focus throughout the season is going to be really important for us.”
Linfield’s road through the competitive Northwest Conference slate begins with a tough road test against Whitman and favorite to three-peat Whitworth the weekend of September 17. The Wildcats open the home portion of the league calendar Sept. 24 against country rival George Fox.