PHOENIX — Fostering a family atmosphere has always been at the forefront of Dennis Flenner’s boys soccer program at Phoenix High School, but this season has provided the culmination of something more special than even he could have imagined.
In his 29th season of coaching soccer, Flenner’s Pirates entered Monday’s game against Klamath Union as the No. 1-ranked team in the state’s Class 4A power rankings at 7-0-1 overall.
Just as important, Flenner’s grandson Bryson is one of the senior leaders on the squad — providing him the rare opportunity to coach a son and grandson during his 24-year reign of guiding the Pirates.
“I’m already dreading not having Bryson with us in Pirate soccer and we still have a few weeks left,” says Dennis. “He’s quite the character, full of life and spark and you-know-what and vinegar, and for me to think about it, golly, it’s not going to be the same without having Bryson with us.”
The experience has been a little different than when his son Brett went through the South Medford program and Dennis wound up serving as his junior varsity coach and later a varsity assistant. Dennis coached at South Medford from 1990-94, then opened his run at Phoenix in the 1995 season.
“My grandson knew what he was getting into,” says Dennis. “My son didn’t really want to play futbol and it was only by sheer accident after the season started that they asked me at South to be coach. My son never asked me to be his coach, but Bryson had wanted it because he grew up with Pirate soccer.”
What Bryson grew up watching was an annual conference title contender that just hasn’t been able to get over the hump and win a state title. Phoenix was state runner-up in 1995 and 2011. There have been several semifinal heartbreaks also in that span, and maybe not enough attention paid to what coach Flenner has accomplished at Phoenix High.
“I’ve wanted to win state a lot for him, and a lot also for my team, because he’s worked so hard in those 24 years,” says Bryson, a 17-year-old senior striker. “I feel like he deserves to lift that trophy at least once. And if his grandson can be on that team doing that, then that would be phenomenal. That would be amazing to celebrate a state final victory with him.”
Dennis agrees, but he knows his team still has a long way to go.
“We would love an undefeated season and a championship, but losing is part of the deal,” says the coach. “It’s a journey and 99 percent of us in the high school sporting world are going to have a sad season at the end. Only one gets to be on the chariot of fire and ride to heaven, the rest of us all die a painful death. But, with us, we’re going to make the absolute best of it, win or lose.”
The Pirates certainly have reason for optimism this season thanks to steady senior leadership and strong players at every level of the field. Phoenix had outscored its opponents 24-3 prior to Monday’s game against KU, with one goal allowed in each of the Pirates’ two season-opening games against Valley Catholic and Molalla and the other on a penalty kick at Henley.
“Defensively, boy have we been solid,” says Dennis. “It’s one of those things that we’re very proud of.”
The coach calls senior goalkeeper Moises Rivera “a Cadillac amongst goalkeepers,” and his supporting cast of center backs Joe Navas (senior) and Dan Martinez (sophomore) have combined with left back Johnny Esquivel (senior) and right back Cornelio Carrera-Flores (sophomore) to lessen any pressure Rivera might see.
“That’s really been the primary reason we’re still in a lot of games because when you’re shutting down your opponent like we have,” says Dennis, “you’re giving the midfield and offense a chance to do their job, so that’s been very helpful.”
Dominating the midfield has been junior standout Randy Rodriguez and sophomore Miguel Conchas, with junior Ty Clayton at right outside halfback and junior Cain Vargas at left outside halfback.
Bryson, already a two-time all-Skyline Conference pick, has worked well in tandem with freshman Victor Martinez to spark the attack at striker. Bryson entered Monday’s game with six goals and his counterpart has seven, with the other 11 spread throughout the roster.
“We can score from just about anywhere,” says Dennis. “That’s the team style of play that we have right now.”
And while striving for team play is always a priority for the Pirates, some seasons the boys just seem to be better at it than others.
“We all love each other and kind of agree that we’re all here for one reason and that’s to win state and we all need each other,” says Bryson, “and I like that mindset because last year it wasn’t like that.
“This year it’s more like, ‘Here you have the ball, no you have the ball.’ And then eventually someone takes a shot and it either goes in or it doesn’t. But we play the game together and I like that. It’s not just 11 individuals on the field.”
While it takes the right player mindset, Bryson says a lot of it also has to do with his grandpa, who is much more than just a coach to his players.
“He’s a great dude, he’s definitely one of the best,” says the 5-foot-7 striker, who netted eight goals last year.
“It’s a unique experience, my grandpa is a very unique coach,” adds Bryson. “He’s very good at knowing about the game and is a good coach overall, but he sort of forms a lot of these kids. Over the past few years I’ve seen him turn us all into good people, not just good soccer players. … I feel like he goes above and beyond for this school, and that’s why they all want him to be their coach and why he’s been here for 24 years.”
The coach can be challenging to his players, running a very disciplined program that does not accept any slip-ups when it comes to academic progress. Not wanting to be seen as showing favoritism, Dennis admits he probably comes down harder on Bryson than anyone else on the team.
“It’s really hard not to take it home but my grandson understands,” says Dennis. “Bryson grew up with Pirate soccer, there’s pictures the Mail Tribune took of him being a ballboy and running across the field with the players when he was 8 or 9 years old at the end of a game. He just totally gets the whole thing, but the cool thing about it is he’s the first one to pick up a ball and start working out and he’s the last one I have to yell that, hey, it’s time to go home.”
And by all accounts, the relationship between the Flenners is truly special.
“Bryson and I are very close and we really enjoy all of this,” says Dennis, “and we both dread not having the level of success that we want to have. He’s worked really hard to get to the level that he’s at, but we also joke and laugh and all that. Really, we’re together all the time. He works at Dairy Queen and we’ll even go over there and eat just so I can talk to him.”
Adds Bryson: “Soccer is definitely one of the biggest things that brings me and my grandpa together because we both have a connection with it. I know that he can make me a better soccer player because I’ve already seen it. And at the same time, he betters me as a person, which is awesome.”
The only thing better? One of Judy Flenner’s special spaghetti team dinners that brings everyone together.
“My grandma’s spaghetti dinners? Ooh!” exclaims Bryson. “Oh yeah dude, those are the best.”
And that goes team-wide.
“When I see alumni kids from our program, some of the first things they always ask is if we still do spaghetti dinners,” laughs Dennis. “Mrs. Flenner puts together these spaghetti dinners at the house before special games and I can’t get them to go home. They sit here and laugh and joke and talk to each other, and when you have kids breaking bread together that are from all different kind of walks of life, it’s special.
“Even though they’re all different in different ways, they step into the soccer arena and they’re Pirates. We’re really a unified group, and that’s important. They just enjoy each other and that’s fantastic, and I enjoy being their coach.”