As conferences go, there may be none more overlooked than the EMAC.
With a few exceptions in sports such as boys basketball, the league that formed in 2010 has taken a backseat in many minds to power conferences such as the Centennial and Continental leagues.
EMAC boys soccer — at least the Aurora teams in it — is putting itself in plain sight in 2017, as all five squads (5A Aurora Central, Gateway, Hinkley, Rangeview and 4A Vista PEAK) sit over .500 in the midst of strong non-conference schedules.
“I think we’re definitely gaining more respect and recognition in the state as a league,” Aurora Central coach Ramiro Loera said. “Hopefully we can get four teams in the playoffs this season.”
Four teams would make the postseason according to the first set of RPI data — which is used to determine the postseason field — released by the Colorado High School Activities Association.
Hinkley (No. 4), Gateway (No. 19), Rangeview (No. 25) and Aurora Central (No. 30) all would be in the 32-team postseason — as would five other Aurora teams in other leagues — if the season ended after games of Sept. 19.
With a wide variety of wins and close results against traditional playoff teams from top conferences, Aurora’s EMAC teams have definitely earned some respect.
Gateway coach Olaf Siverson has been around since the inception of the league and he has seen a change in perception.
“I think in the early going of the league, teams signed us up thinking they were going to get an easy win,” Siverson said. “Now, they are signing us up because we have some playoff teams and they know they are going to have to compete with us in the postseason. It’s definitely switched up a little bit.”
Surprising Hinkley has been at the forefront of the EMAC rise in the early going.
With alum Marcos Madera now at the helm as head coach, the Thunderbirds (6-1) have posted some impressive results among their first seven games of the season and even earned themselves the No. 9 spot in the latest CHSAANow.com 5A rankings.
Interestingly enough, Hinkley hasn’t been to the playoffs in the past three seasons, even in its nine-win 2015 season. The program’s last postseason trip came in 2013, when the then-EMAC runners-up went in seeded 28th and lost to fifth-seeded Grandview in the opening round.
Hinkley’s seniors haven’t known playoff play and because of that, Madera has a motivated group on his hands in players such as forward Anandro Sinaga.
“It’s definitely been frustrating for me and the other guys who haven’t been to the playoffs,” Sinaga said. “This is our last year, so we’re just trying to get there. We feel like we are a very strong, very good team this season.”
The results have shown that, as Hinkley won five games all last season, but had six through the first seven games in the 2017 campaign. And they aren’t just any wins. The Thunderbirds opened the season with a eyebrow-raising 3-1 victory over Centennial League power Cherry Creek, then followed that with a win against Legacy, another playoff team from last season.
Sinaga (eight goals) and fellow senior Danny Gonzalez (game-winners against Cherry Creek, Legacy and Gateway) have provided plenty of offensive firepower thus far, while senior Oscar Sarabia and a strong backline in front of keeper Alexis Acevedo have allowed just two goals all season.
Monarch and Fort Collins lead 5A with just one goal against.
While Hinkley is on a recent rise, Rangeview (3-2) has been the gold standard for the EMAC since its very beginning.
Veteran coach Vic Strouse’s group has lost just one league game over the past four-plus seasons, going 34-1-5 over that span with the only blemish a loss to Westminster late in the 2014 season.
The Raiders also have had some postseason success, making it into the second round of the 5A playoffs in 2012, 2013 and last season, when they lost to sixth-seeded Arapahoe in a penalty kick shootout.
Rangeview nearly beat the Warriors in a rematch in its opening game and lost to Denver East — the No. 1 team in the early RPI — in a tight contest before an impressive 6-1 win over a quality Eaglecrest side.
Junior Alexis Flores leads the Raiders with seven goals, while sophomore Rashid Seidu-Aroza — a forward with remarkable size and speed — has six, while senior midfielder Luis Cervantes has four goals and four assists as one of the playmakers in a diverse attack.
Strouse notes his team is almost entirely new on the backline, so the development of that group by the end of the season is key.
“We’ve got experience in our midfield and some big, fast forwards, but our question mark is on the back line since we start three new players,” Strouse said. “They are doing great, but sometimes they are still a little prone to making things easier for opponents. If we clean that up a little bit, we’ll be alright.”
A veteran Gateway team is in search of a much higher seed than it is used to in the postseason. The Olys’ last three trips to the playoffs (2012, 2015 and 2016) have seen them seeded no higher than 28th out of 32 teams, in part because of the league’s former reputation.
But long odds hasn’t deterred Gateway once its gotten on the pitch.
The Olys pulled off a 28 over 5 upset in the 2012 playoffs with a 3-1 win over Arvada West, while they lost by a single goal to top-seeded and eventual semifinalist Fairview in 2015 (as the No. 32 seed) and by one to 2016 runner-up Broomfield as the No. 29 team.
Siverson likes the balance that his team has offensively — 11 players have at least one goal, with junior Josh Guzman leading the way with six — while the defense is pretty well set with playmaking senior goalkeeper Erick Torres firmly entrenched in the net.
“We’re a lot of seniors that bring a lot of experience; I have to coach them to make sure they aren’t complacent,” Siverson said. “They have been in the playoffs since they were sophomores, but we can’t take that for granted.
“In our minds, we know we can compete with anybody.”
Siverson believes one of the difficulties the EMAC’s better teams face is playing games against the less competitive teams in the conference right before the postseason. For that reason, he is thankful that two of the Olys’ last three regular season games come against Rangeview (Oct. 7) and Aurora Central (Oct. 10).
Loera knows about gaining respect for the EMAC, as the Adams City team he coached in 2012 had the league’s highest-ever seed in the postseason when it went into the 5A playoffs at No. 1.
That trip didn’t go so well as the Eagles were upset by Eaglecrest in the second round, but it began the process for the league.
In his second season at Aurora Central, Loera has himself a very young side — he estimates about 20 freshmen are in the program — but he’s seen a lot of growth from his young players in a non-league that included a one-goal losses to Denver East and Cherry Creek, followed by a 5-1 win over a solid Centennial League team in Cherokee Trail.
In addition to youth, the Trojans lean on players like senior Alexis De La Vega (team-leading six goals) and senior keeper Esteban Tavira-Ramirez, who scored a wind-aided, length-of-the-field goal against Vista PEAK on Sept. 19.
“Our kids have what it takes, a lot of it is time and helping them get used to the speed of high school play,” Loera said. “Hopefully we are ready for the next three weeks. They will be really tough for us, but I’m looking forward to it because there are so many great programs around.
“These are the kind of games you want to play and be in.”
Under new coach Federico Gomez, Vista PEAK — a second-year member of the EMAC — is off to a 4-3 start with some quality results as well.
The Bison have some work to do to get into the 4A postseason, as they sit No. 52 in the first set of RPI rankings.
Eight different players have at least one goal in the early going for Vista PEAK, with junior Christian Magana leading the way with five — including an overtime game-winner against Denver East — while junior Hunter Carroll has four goals and four assists.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
2017 AURORA BOYS SOCCER
Through games of Sept. 19
Centennial League: Grandview 5-1 (No. 2 5A RPI); Smoky Hill 5-2 (No. 24 5A RPI); Eaglecrest 5-3 (No. 29 5A RPI); Cherokee Trail 2-4-1 (No. 28 5A RPI); Overland 1-5 (No. 58 5A RPI)
Continental League: Regis Jesuit 5-1 (No. 5 5A RPI)
EMAC: Hinkley 6-1 (No. 4 5A RPI); Gateway 5-1-1 (No. 19 5A RPI); Aurora Central 4-3 (No. 30 5A RPI); Vista PEAK 4-3 (No. 52 4A RPI); Rangeview 3-2 (No. 25 5A RPI)