CHAMPAIGN — What happened two years ago with Parkland men's soccer is a good memory.
But the trip to the NJCAA Division I national tournament is one the current Mark Sikora-coached Cobras have little recollection of.
"Every two year-cycle, you have new guys," said Sikora, in his 12th season leading Parkland. "It's old hat to us, but for these guys, it's brand new."
That's because Parkland (11-2-1) has 17 new players on its roster this season, a season that continues at 3 p.m. today against Southwestern Illinois (5-13-1) in a Region 24 quarterfinal match the Cobras will host. Beat SWIC — which Parkland did 3-2 last Wednesday — and a Region 24 semifinal match in Godfrey awaits on Friday, with the Region 24 title match slated for 2 p.m. on Sunday.
"Assuming that neither of us really change what we do in a week, it helps our guys stay focused," Sikora said of playing SWIC again. "We were successful for most of that match, so we just have to build on that."
The ultimate goal for the Cobras is to make a second trip to the national tournament in three seasons — starting Nov. 12 in Daytona Beach, Fla. — and Parkland will not only need to win the Region 24 tournament, but also emerge as the Central District champion on Nov. 3.
"If you look towards the end too quickly, you miss the moment you're in right now," Sikora said. "I want these new guys to enjoy the grind and every moment is that chance to get a little better. There's no point in talking about getting to Florida if we can't get past Wednesday."
Sikora's latest roster features a mix of local and international talent that have sparked another successful season for the Cobras. Forward Yu Sasaski (team-high 10 goals, 10 assists) and midfielder Naoto Uede (nine goals, four assists) both hail from Japan. Sophomore Jesus Reina (eight goals, three assists) is from Venezuela and midfielder Zach Gowlett (five goals, team-high 11 assists) is from Canada.
Danville graduate Ethan Norton (four assists), along with Centennial products Francisco Andrade (three goals) and Diarmuid Reilly are among area talents the Cobras rely on amid a roster featuring 24 players from 11 different countries.
"Getting them on the same page quickly is challenging, but at the same time, it's fun because there's never a dull moment," Sikora said. "I know the game is relatively the same language, but how they speak it and how they play it is a different issue. My goal every year is to start as local as we can (with recruiting) and work our way out. In our best years, which we've had in the last four to five years, we are getting a lot of what we consider local kids."
A look at the Region 24 men's soccer tournament that starts today:
(7) Lincoln Land (6-11) at (2) Illinois Central (8-3-2)
(6) Southwestern Illinois (5-13-1) at (3) Parkland (11-2-1), 2 p.m.
(5) John Wood (8-5) at (4) Heartland (10-4)
At Lewis & Clark, Godfrey
Noon — Lowest remaining seed vs. (1) Lewis & Clark (12-1-1)
2 p.m. — Two remaining seeds
At Lewis & Clark, Godfrey
2 p.m. — Championship