After reaching state finals, Riders have something to prove

Goalie Xander Omans earned first-team All-Henlopen North honors as a junior a year ago for the Riders. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

CAMDEN — The Caesar Rodney High boys’ soccer team had a lot to be proud of last fall.

The Riders went 16-3, won the Henlopen Conference title and reached the DIAA Division I state finals.

CR’s players just would have liked a different ending.

The Riders fell to state powerhouse Salesianum, 7-0, in the state championship match.

So as much as CR would like to pick up where it left off, the Riders also have a bit of a chip on their shoulders to start the season.

“It’s a big motivation for us,” senior Sebastian Stubbulo said about losing in the finals. “We didn’t want to lose that way — we didn’t want to lose at all. But just losing that way is really driving us forward, especially us seniors.”

Certainly, CR has a new look this fall.

For the first time in almost a quarter century, Darrell Gravatt isn’t the Riders’ head coach. He retired after 24 seasons and four appearances in the boys’ state finals.

Gravatt’s assistant, Dwayne Lavender, takes over as head coach and inherits about half the starting lineup from a year ago. While CR had nine seniors on last year’s roster, it also had 10 juniors.

Lavender also expects a talented group of freshmen to contribute at some point down the road.

“We lost some quality seniors, there’s no doubt,” he said. “But we definitely have a good returning group. A lot of kids have been waiting and paying their dues for a while, just waiting for that opportunity.

“A lot of kids have a great chance to step up and take a stronger role in the program.”

Brandon Victory, a second-team All-Henlopen North pick last fall, is one of a handful of starters returning for CR.

Returning for the Riders is first-team all-Henlopen North goalie Xander Omans, now a second-year starter as a senior. Also back is second-team all-North selection Brandon Victory at center defensive midfielder.

After graduating seven other players who earned all-conference honors, Victory knows a lot of people will look at CR as being in a rebuilding year.

“I think it’s going to take a little bit for us to get known,” he said. “I mean everyone counts us out every year, so it’s nothing different. We’ve always had an underdog feeling. But we come to play every game.”

The Riders open their condensed, 12-game season on Oct. 20 at Sussex Academy. They play only one team outside the Henlopen Conference, hosting Caravel on Nov. 25.

Facing two games a week over the six-week span means teams really won’t have a chance to ease into their schedules. CR plays its Henlopen North opener at Cape Henlopen on Oct. 22.

Even though the scholastic season is getting off to a late start because of the coronavirus pandemic, many high school players have been involved in summer leagues and working out over the past several months.

Omans hopes what the Riders lack in varsity experience, they can make up for in overall soccer experience.

“A lot of us have been playing for a very long time,” said Omans, who led a defense that posted eight shutouts last season. “There’s a lot of club players on this team right now. … We’re already really good at chemistry.

“I definitely want to have a chance to get back to that top spot and hopefully conquer that top spot and be No. 1,” he added.

“There’s a lot of fresh faces, a lot of young blood,” said Stubbolo. “The camaraderie is really good, everybody gets along. It’s just an exciting group to be a part of.

“We’re hoping to build on last year — the same core ideals. Hopefully we’ll have a successful year.”

Lavender said he’s not planning any big changes from the way Gravatt ran things. He’ll be happy if the Riders keep having the same kind of success, too.

CR has finished with at least 10 wins and reached the state tournament every season since 2010.

“We are who we are,” said Lavender. “Coach Gravatt and I coached together for so long, our philosophy is very similar. I’m always going to do what’s best for the group and that changes year to year.

“But good soccer to me is good soccer. And the way I think good soccer is played is never going to change.”