CHARLOTTE – Independence boys soccer coach Tyler Gibson wasn’t sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him early last season as he watched first hand while then-junior Cvan Than transformed on the field from a very nice player to perhaps the best to ever wear the Patriot yellow and green.
Than had played in 18 of the Patriots’ 22 matches during his freshman season in 2015. Than said he averaged a few minutes per game, but Than admittingly wasn’t a great ball striker and finished the season with one goal and one assist.
In 2016, Than was 11th on the team in total minutes, although he started the majority of Independence’s games up front. He had a nice sophomore season, finishing with a team-best eight assists to go with 11 goals, which ranked second on the team.
“Finishing-wise my freshman year wasn’t so great, so I practiced and trained as much as I could,” Than said. “I think I had a better sophomore season, but I could have done better.”
Than said Gibson approached him following that season to address a problem the coach was picking up on.
Despite getting an increase in minutes, touches and, thus, scoring chances, Than had not always capitalized on his opportunity.
“Coach used to say to me, ‘You have to finish every chance and bury the ball in the back of the net,’’’ Than said. “So that’s what I did. I just focused on the ball and putting it in the back of the net.”
That seems simple enough, but it worked.
Than came back last season as a much better and more complete player with improved ball-striking skills and a penchant for finding the goal.
He started with a score in Independence’s season-opening 2-1 upset of South Meck. Then it was a hat trick in the second game against Harding, followed by a five-goal performance in a 9-0 mercy rule win over Hopewell.
“I don’t know,” Gibson said of the early season onslaught. “At first I guess I wasn’t sure what it was. It could have been just a couple of really good games to start the season or I didn’t know what. But the longer the season wore on, I started to realize that it was the consistency he showed game in and game out. That’s what the biggest thing was. He got his chances and he kept putting them away and he did it all season long.”
Than ended 2017 with 31 of the Patriots’ 70 goals. It shattered Julian Peralta’s 15-year-old single-season mark of 22, but to Than, it wasn’t anything too special.
“Last year, I was just playing the game and trying to win,” he said. “I wasn’t out there trying to be the best or whatever. I was just working my hardest.”
The Patriots went 14-9 last season and on to the second round of the playoffs before falling to Hough, but the accolades were just beginning.
Than made several postseason teams, but capped everything with an all-state honor. It was just the third time in the 2000s that an Independence player made the all-state team — joining Brandon Hodges (2000) and Jack Herbert (2016) — but at first it wasn’t all that big of a deal to Than.
“I didn’t expect to be all-state, but when it came I had a reaction to it,” Than said. “Coach congratulated me, but at first it was kind of weird. I didn’t know what it meant or that it was that big of a deal until I realized how few players get it and how prestigious it is. It turned out to be a big deal and something I was proud of.”
This season has gone well, too.
Ro Lion and Dino Silva have taken over the team assists lead, although Than still has five on the year. He leads the Patriots, who fell to 9-5-1 with a 3-2 loss to East Meck on Oct. 8, with 17 goals.
Although Than doesn’t sense the added pressure and shades to his side of the field, Gibson does.
“Teams are responding to him and are definitely guarding him differently,” Gibson said. “Because of that he may not finish with the same numbers that he had last year, but he’s still having a huge impact on the field and with what we’re doing.”
Gibson said Than handles the price of stardom well, and the Patriot senior says he understands his teammates are likely watching his every move. Because of that, Than said he tries to come early and stay late to practice and set a good example.
“This is my last year, so I have to be a leader here for the younger guys and really push them to get better,” he said. “I know I have to be the hardest worker out here and make sure I’m setting the right example. I want to practice how I play, set a good example and try to continue the culture.”
And, he wants to go out a winner.
The Patriots have gone out in the second round of the playoffs each of Than’s seasons, losing twice to Porter Ridge and last year to Hough.
Now, he wants to change that and make sure that his impact will remain far after he’s gone.
“I want to go as far as we can in the playoffs and make sure people know who Independence is,” he said while thinking how to answer what his impact has been. “I believe anyone can score, but it’s how hard you work, what you bring to the team and how you make it better. It doesn’t matter how good you are, because it’s a team effort. It’s the same for goal scoring. I get a lot of the goals, but it doesn’t happen if my team around me isn’t very good, too. That’s what makes it fun.”