VERNON - Warren G. Harding and Badger athletic teams rarely square off against each other, but in terms of boys soccer, the two schools have started one of Trumbull County's newest rivalries.
For the sixth consecutive year, the Raiders and Braves played each other - this time on opening day for soccer in Ohio - and the Braves increased their unbeaten streak over the Raiders to six games with a 2-0 win.
"Definitely a rivalry," Badger coach Justin Deraway said. "Last year, it was tie game down there. This year, we edged ahead of them a little bit, but they've improved so much in the last five years, it's been a contest that the teams always look forward to."
The Raiders (0-1) were the more technically gifted of the two teams and held most of the possession throughout the match, but Badger (1-0) countered by being physical every moment of the match. This took Harding out of its rhythm a bit.
Going down early also hurt Harding, as the Braves took the lead in the fourth minute. Badger's Cody Marshall pick-pocketed a Raider defender who held onto the ball too long before squeaking a shot past Harding senior Austin Vingle from around the penalty spot.
"Badger doesn't have a football team - this is their football team," Harding coach Tilden Tatebe said. "We understand that. We know that coming in. I don't think that was as much a factor as they wanted it more than us. I think that our desire wasn't there, especially the first 20 minutes of the game, and I'm not sure why."
With possession came a lot of chances by Harding to score, but the Badger defense held strong, making life easy on goalkeeper Jared Meikle. The senior saw three shots reach him all match, as his defenders blocked many shots before they could reach him.
It became critical for the Braves when the Raiders pressed in the second half after going down two goals early.
"My defense is excellent, they're very solid," Meikle said. "They're very smart, they know what they're doing and it makes my job easier because I don't have to do as much when they're doing their job correctly."
Since Tatebe became the coach of the Harding soccer program six years ago, the Raiders have improved steadily to a respectable team that has a ton of athletes. In order for that trend to continue, Tatebe said that it must be a team effort.
"Honestly, I don't believe that there's any one, two, three or four players that drive this team," Tatebe said. "For us to be successful, we need to play as one, and our camaraderie this year, more than ever, has been excellent. We've got really great team chemistry. If we play together, we'll be successful."
As for Badger, the Braves are used to being the kings of the Northeastern Athletic Conference, and they expect to do run the table again, even if the conference is catching up to them. They hope to replicate the stout defense from 2012, when the Braves allowed 17 goals and recorded 12 shutouts.
"Defensive teams, I think, are the better teams," Meikle said. "Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. I think we're very good defensively, and our offense will carry us, too."
Another team expected to be a force in the county is Lakeview. The Bulldogs have been the cream of the crop in Trumbull County for boys soccer, but coach Nate Mailach doesn't expect the back-to-back district champions to start off hot in 2013.
Last season's state-leading scorer Colton Ainsley missed the last five weeks because of a foot injury, and while the forward line looks like it will be as prolific as in 2012 when the Bulldogs scored 115 goals despite Ainsley's injury, Mailach hasn't found the right combinations in midfield and defense.
"We're hoping to capitalize on momentum we've had the last two years, but so far, it's been a rough go," Mailach said. "We've had some key injuries this preseason, and we've yet to get our projected starting eleven on the field at the same time all summer.
"I keep telling these guys that we have to be perfect in October, not in August."