---- — Last year, Shikellamy coach Jon Steese heard from a handful of coaches that had the Braves been in any other conference except HAC-I, they probably would've been a postseason qualifier.
That may be hard to believe when considering the Braves were just 2-16 last season, but when looking at who they have to play -- Lewisburg, Midd-West, Danville, Selinsgrove, Mifflinburg, Milton -- it's easy to see where a lot of a young team's losses came from in their extremely tough division.
When this season started, Steese told his team that if they didn't qualify for districts this year, it'd be the first time in awhile that none of the Braves could say they had postseason experience.
After all, the last time the Braves were postseason-bound, the current seniors were just eighth graders. The last time Shikellamy had a four-year span with no playoff appearances was from 1999-2002.
To add to that, when the year started, Steese talked to his team and told them if the team worked hard this season, double-digit wins weren't out of the question.
It may have been a big goal for some fans to think they could qualify for districts this year, but they're definitely proving the naysayers wrong.
The Braves surprised many people -- this sports writer included -- when they got off to a stellar start this season.
Shikellamy was an impressive 5-0 before losing to Warrior Run, 2-1, on a rainy Saturday two weeks ago. Now they sit at 8-2-1 and are just a win away from the magic number to get into the District 4 playoffs.
"I am surprised by how fast we started. I thought it would take a little bit (of time). Shikellamy traditionally is a second-half team," Steese said. "This year, the guys were awesome from the start. We've been working at (getting a little better). We try to improve on it every day at practice. We've been pretty successful (so far)."
Steese is in just his second year at the helm of the Braves, but he was an assistant coach for a handful of years under coach Kurt Mayer. And under Mayer, he learned what it took to win.
"I've seen the success. I've seen what we've had to do to get there and this team is all about (that)," Steese said. "I told them they haven't earned anything yet. We have to look for respect from other teams. Hopefully this year we're getting some eyes opened up and we can run with some other teams in the area."
The Braves aren't an offensive powerhouse with a go-to scorer who will run away with goals this year in the Valley -- Seth Burk leads the team with just five -- but rather it's their incredibly solid defense that is helping get the wins each week.
Through 11 games, the Braves have given up just six goals (including two against Warrior Run, three to Midd-West) and have posted a Valley-high eight shutouts.
That strong defense has been due in large part to Drayton Laverio, Brenden Stepp and Taylor Edwards, among others including goalie Justin Engle.
"We have excellent speed in the back. When teams try to beat us over the top, we have speed to get back," Steese said. "Justin has great hands and is very decisive. If he's off the line, I'm really confident in what he does."
The Braves haven't had a winning season since 2008, but it's safe to say that Steese has Shikellamy on the right track this year to change that.
n Jon Gerardi covers high school soccer for The Daily Item. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JonGerardi.