Dover-Eyota didn’t have a high school boys soccer program until 2017.
But D-E had a class that had some flashes of brilliance.
In 2016, the group of eighth-graders went undefeated, and John Pittenger knew he had something special brewing. But how special? Pittenger figured he’d have to wait a few years for it to really come to fruition.
Eight freshmen started Dover-Eyota’s first-ever varsity soccer game on Aug. 24, 2017. It lost 2-0 to Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa, but the scrappy freshmen rebounded to help the Eagles finish a respectable 8-8.
After the season, Pittenger organized a paintball excursion at Zumbro Valley Paintball. The Eagles had a great bonding experience and Pittenger survived, even though he was peppered with bullets and even took a paintball to the knuckle.
“The bond was clearly there,” Pittenger said. “Of all things on the paintball field, you could just tell that these guys were bought in and that this was going to be more of a brotherhood, something bigger than just being a soccer team.”
Pittenger couldn't have been more correct. In 2018, the Eagles won nine games and earned their very first playoff victory when they edged Plainview-Elgin-Millville 2-1.
“Those first few years were fun but they weren’t easy,” star striker Tyler Johnson said. “Everybody was older than us.”
By 2019, it was clear that a .500 record wasn’t going to be the bar anymore. All of the sudden, the Eagles weren’t young. The eight freshmen who had started back in 2017 had matured into juniors.
They finished 13-3 and Byron and La Crescent were the only two teams that could beat them.
And they parlayed that strong 2019 season into an impeccable 2020 campaign. The Eagles have blown out almost every team in their path. They blitzed Red Wing 8-1 in the first round of the Section 1A tournament on Tuesday, and they’re a perfect 12-0 heading into Thursday's section quarterfinal match against Lake City.
"Yeah, it’s been fun, but it’s been four years in the making,” senior keeper Anthony Swenson said. “Right away, we knew that our senior year was going to be our best year and it’s started to play out like that. I’ve been playing with these guys forever. In junior high, we went undefeated. We started the program. We are ending it how we started it.”
At the core, Swenson and senior defenseman McKray Tuma embody everything about Dover-Eyota soccer. Both Swenson and Tuma play elite travel soccer. Tuma has competed against some of the best players in the country. Swenson plays for the elite program Minnesota Thunder Academy in the Twin Cities.
But instead of leaving Dover-Eyota for a prep academy that could give them more exposure, they chose to stay because they wanted to finish what they started.
“They’re really high-level college talent,” Pittenger said. “By staying with us and developing the other guys, it really established their leadership. They did a lot of great things for us.
“Our starting lineup has six kids who play travel soccer and five who haven’t. They’ve grown the program where we can have really good athletes be a part of our group even though they’re part-time soccer players. This core of kids has made an atmosphere that kids who aren’t just only soccer players want to be a part of.”
Swenson has been brick wall in goal. He’s racked up 70 saves in 12 games, as the Eagles have allowed six total goals (0.5 per game) this fall. That’s in large part due to the play of Tuma, Adam Wibstad, Mitchel Rubow and Nolan Bushman.
"Those four seniors are close friends, and Tuma is the center of it; he’s a Division I player,” Pittenger said. “Four really good athletes. Two have never played travel soccer and two have. They’ve played together forever. The continuity helps, and when something goes wrong, you’re looking at a good friend of yours who can help you figure it out.”
Johnson’s goal was to become more assertive this season, and he’s done just that, racking up 24 goals and 10 assists. Brodie Kellen has 15 goals and five assists. Landon Demuth (five goals, four assists), William Thomas (three goals, nine assists) and Tuma (three goals, five assists) have been terrific.
Even though Johnson is one of the most explosive offensive players in the area, he can’t get around Tuma in practice.
"He’s the best defender I’ve ever played against,” Johnson said. “He’s tremendous.”
But that competitiveness is what makes Dover-Eyota click. And it pairs well with the environment that Pittenger has created. If there’s an issue, they can deal with it right away.
“Yeah he takes our crap,” Tuma said with a chuckle. “He’s just created a really chill environment. He just lets us go do our thing and vibe out on the field.”
The Eagles’ best win came in the season finale against Rochester Lourdes. Dover-Eyota came back and beat Lourdes 2-1. Even though there’s no state tournament this fall, the Eagles still have a potential date with defending section champion Austin circled on their calendar.
They want a piece of one of the best teams in the state.
“It’s unfortunate to lose that goal of a state tournament,” Pittenger said. “But when you have Austin in your section, that’s a pretty big mountain as well.”
Swenson added: “Nothing would be better than going to The Bank and compete there for a state title. But beating Austin would be the next best thing. It’d be a great cap to the senior year to beat Austin in the section final game. I think it’d be a really good accomplishment. It’d feel really good to leave and know that we were the best in the section.”
If Dover-Eyota can get past Lake City on Thursday, it will advance to the Section 1A semifinals against Byron or Plainview-Elgin-Millville.
The Eagles hope their fairytale season still has some unwritten chapters. The seniors started the program and want to finish their careers on top.
“It’s finishing where it all started,” Swenson said, "being there for your teammates and the guys who were there from the beginning. High school, you only do it once, so you want to make it fun and I wanted to be with my friends and win with them.”