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After a rocky start, PJ Esterly has helped the Walker soccer team keep opponents to only 12 goals over the last 12 games — all wins for the Wolverines.

After missing the state playoffs last season for the first time in three years, Walker's boys soccer team did not take long to rebound.

On Saturday, Walker beat county rival Mount Paran Christian 2-1 to clinch the Area 5A trophy.

“Last year, we missed the state playoffs for the first time in a long time,” Walker athletic director Leigh Block said. “The area was very tough, so to go from missing the playoffs to winning the area is a great turnaround. We’re proud of what they’ve done.”

Motivated by the playoff absence, Walker's players entered the offseason with a chip on their shoulders. Coach Lamar Howard said missing the playoffs was a wake-up call, and the players realized they could not get complacent and expect to win because “we’re Walker.”

As hard as Walker worked, it was hit even harder once the season began. The Wolverines began the season 0-3, outscored 16-2 by Blessed Trinity, Riverside Military and St. Anne-Pacelli.

“No one wants to lose in the fashion we were losing,” Howard said. “I just kept reiterating the fact that it’s a long season.”

The team listened. Howard said he started the schedule out against the top teams for an early challenge, so the players could expose their mistakes just as early.

Since then, Walker has not lost, taking a 12-game win streak into Tuesday's game against King's Academy.

Howard said the turnaround was caused by a “mixture of things." Many players returned from winter sports, and others from injury. Others had gotten used to playing new positions.

Due to an overload of 10 to 12 wing players, adjustments were made to keep the best players on the field, including the Walker's first-year goalkeeper.

“That’s what makes us a special group,” Howard said. “It didn’t take a long time at all (to buy in).

“We don’t quit. We battle back, and I think, because of those games, we’re not afraid to get down. Everyone bought in to do their part for success and, sometimes, you get a little lucky.”

With Walker's struggles seemingly in the past, the Wolverines have laid their eyes on the prize. Now that they have won region, it will given them a favorable seed as the state playoffs begin next week.

Walker is led by eight seniors, including co-captains Nikolas Tally, Sahil Singh and Jack Slade. On the field, Nick Rath has carries the offensive load with 27 goals, but it took a play from Tate Harrison to cement the area championship.

After exchanging goals in the first half, the teams went back-and-fourth until Howard signaled for a set play with four minutes left. The design was “executed perfectly,” and the ball off Harrison's foot hit the back of the net as a result.

“It’s my fifth year coaching,” Howard said. “I can’t think of time where a game between us wasn’t close.”

With an ultimate goal of winning the state championship, Walker must keep moving, and build off the comeback that Howard has credited toward paying attention to the small details.

“If you let the little things go, you’ll open yourself up to big problems,” Howard said. “It’s a reason to celebrate. Plus, it’s always sweet to win against a rival.”

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