Joel Pelton, 5, for the Antlers cuts the ball back on April 12 against Brownsville Veteran Memorial.

It wasn’t difficult for coach Reece Zunker to detect a difference in his Tivy soccer workouts once the 2019 season ended.

They’ve been quieter. Much quieter.

It’s because the 2019 seniors have since left the program. They turned routine teams workouts into raucous affairs. They hollered, poked fun at each and cracked jokes while lifting weights.

“They had a good time,” Zunker said. “But while they were (joking around), everyone of those kids were working hard too.”

The ensuing silence since their departure reflects the rebuilding project Zunker faces this summer — he’s losing one of the best senior classes in Tivy history. The seniors started playing together when they joined Hill Country Crush as 7 year olds. When it came time to play varsity soccer at Tivy, they were massively successful, especially this season when they claimed back-to-back District 26-5A titles and became the first Antlers’ team since 2004 to advance to the regional semifinals.

Obviously, such a successful season yielded numerous postseason accolades. Senior goalkeeper Stephen Canty (who became the first player in Tivy history to play Division-I men’s soccer when he committed to SMU in the fall) was a first-team, all-state selection for the third consecutive season and was named the District 26-5A goalkeeper of the year. His senior cohort Jasen Zirkel (who will play at Mary Hardin-Baylor) was a second-team, all-state selection and the district’s offensive player of the year after registering 24 goals and 21 assists.

Four other seniors (Joel Pelton, Frankie Aguilar, Caleb Kissinger and Gustavo Ortiz) received first-team, all-district honors, while four more Antlers (Jonathan Ellington, Garrison Engstrom, Frank Molina and Manny Hernandez) earned second-team, all-district recognition.

The bad news for Tivy is that the majority of their award-winning players will be gone next season. Fortunately, the departing seniors left the Antlers’ underclassmen a blueprint on how to succeed.

“What they did, what they bought in to and how they did it means the world to the program,” Zunker said. “It’s made my job a lot easier with these younger guys able to buy in. … Once they saw that success, the younger kids have really gotten after it. I think the only reason for that is because of what the seniors have done. They have risen the level of expectation and what the program is and really made it something that the younger guys aspire to match.”

In past off-seasons, Zunker had to challenge his players to exert themselves to their physical limits, encouraging them to work hard to fulfill potential. He really hasn’t had to do that this year. The underclassmen know the work load required to win at a high level. After all, they’ve studied the seniors’ habits the last few years.

“During the off-season, we have to push ourselves hard,” said Molina, one of Tivy’s two returning starters. “We are never going to be the biggest, we just have to have a good mindset.”

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