Conversation key to Highland Park’s development

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HIGHLAND PARK — Highland Park’s boys soccer team has a routine at the end of each practice.

Players huddle up, arms extended and resting on each other’s shoulders. One of three senior captains speaks.

“We’ll say, ‘Get your homework done tonight, regroup and have a great season,’ ” senior forward Tony Barrios said.

The message does not end there. Often in the evening, Barrios or one of the other captains — defenders Omar Rodriguez and Zach Kohn — will send out a group text. Giants players will also converse within a team Facebook group.

“We’ll chat about a game or practice and reflect,” Barrios said. “Make sure we are talking about what we need to.”

Highland Park is a senior-heavy squad in 2014, with 10 on the roster. It would be easy to assume talent and leadership is a known quantity. But two early losses exposed on-field weaknesses. Coach Blake Novotny is watching his players’ internal chemistry.

“They are good players, nice kids. But the more I can have them become models [of leadership, the better],” Novotny said. “Every season I’ve coached, my experience is the teams that move forward in the playoffs have good senior leadership at the top. There’s this correlation with strong senior leadership and strong success.”

While Novotny said he can expedite the process with chemistry-enhancing activities, industriousness is a significant piece of the equation.

“You can try and facilitate, but you become too much of a crutch and it’s not authentic,” Novotny said. “There’s no magic formula.”

On Saturday night, Highland Park hosted Deerfield at Wolters Field. Novotny attempted to make the game between CSL rivals an event. Flyers were distributed throughout the school to promote the contest, and a group of students affiliated with the school’s Blue and White Crazy Crew cheering section came out.

The game ended in a 0-0 draw, but Barrios took long-view approach.

“There were tons of fans, all supporting us. Lots of people came to watch. We were very excited to play,” Barrios said. “Just the atmosphere of the game energized us.”

That’s what Novotny was aiming for. Whether there will be a carryover effect remains to be seen.

Highland Park is a versatile team that plays a possession style. Barrios can be a force up top. Senior midfielder Juan Marban, along with Rodriquez and Kohn, initiate a potent attack. Ethan Ochoa is an important newcomer. The pieces are in place for a run at conference and regional titles.

Barrios encourages his teammates to keep talking, whether it be after practice or later while at home. The Giants’ ability to merge evolving team chemistry with on-field experience could determine whether trophies are raised in October and November.

“We have flashes or greatness as a whole team, but sometimes we are not playing to our full capacity,” Barrios said. “As time goes on, we will play at a top level.”

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