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story.lead_photo.caption Graham Thomas/Herald-Leader Siloam Springs senior Irvin Rios plays the ball forward against Benton during the Class 6A semifinals on Saturday in Russellville.

Irvin Rios has been on both sides of the coin in the Class 6A state soccer finals.

Rios was a member of the 2015 Siloam Springs boys soccer team that lost 2-1 to Russellville in the 6A state finals, finishing as state runner-up.

He also was a key player on the 2016 and 2017 6A state champion Panther teams, beating Russellville 2-0 in 2016 and a 4-0 win over Mountain Home last year.

The joy of winning and the agony of defeat -- Rios has experienced both as the Panthers are set to return to the state finals at 4 p.m. Friday against rival Russellville.

"Yeah it's hard to lose, but it's the most beautiful feeling to win a state final," said Rios. "Just knowing that we have the Siloam Springs name on our chest, it's kind of a tradition to go to state final every year. It's our last one. We need to enjoy it as much as we can and hopefully we can finish with the win."

And to win Friday against the Cyclones (18-5-1), the Panthers have to win the midfield, and that's where Rios comes in.

After playing all over the field in his first two-and-a-half seasons at Siloam Springs, Rios has settled into the center midfield for the Panthers (16-7-3).

"I'm more comfortable in the midfield," Rios said. "I don't feel scared or afraid or stressed to want to get the ball. I want to get the ball. I feel calm. I'm used to touching the ball and moving it around."

As a freshman, Rios played a wing or outside midfielder position, but he moved back to defensive back as a sophomore.

He even played some forward as a junior before his coaches moved him into the midfield.

Part of the challenge for playing midfield is that Rios is not the tallest guy on the field, standing between around 5-foot-5. With teams typically using height as an advantage to win 50-50 balls in the air, Rios doesn't let a lack of height keep him from having success.

"I mean it's kind of challenging, but you know when the ball is in there air, whoever wants the ball more gets it and I feel like I get the ball more than other taller players on other teams," Rios said. "I know I'm not the tallest one, but whenever I see the ball in the air, my first instinct is to go for it -- whatever it takes. And if I don't win it I still fight for it."

Brent Crenshaw, Siloam Springs head coach, has been impressed with his midfielder's ability.

"It's just desire and sometimes it's being smart and knowing how to read the ball in the air," Crenshaw said. "He never takes a game off. He comes out every game and never has a down game. He just works his tail off at center mid."

Crenshaw said he sees some similarities in Rios and himself from his days as a player.

"Irvin reminds me of me but he's a lot more skilled than I was," Crenshaw said. "I wasn't very big, but my job in high school was to win every 50-50 ball. That's how Irvin is."

A lot of Rios' work is done behind the scenes. He doesn't have any eye-popping stats from his four years, just a total of five goals and three assists, but the work he's done has been valuable.

Crenshaw said Rios sets a good example for his teammates.

"He's there every practice and doesn't goof off," Crenshaw said. "You can tell he loves to play the game and wants to challenge himself and his teammates. He leads by example and goes out every practice and works hard.

"He's fought through some injuries this year, legitimate injuries and some kids would be done because of them. He's doing everything he can to get back in because he doesn't want to miss playing."

Rios likes where the Panthers are at right now as a team, having won their last five games.

"Right now I feel like we're in the best spot we've ever been," he said. "We started rough, but we've been playing this game forever. We know what it takes to play our top game. We've played in the state and conference final. We just need to play how we know we can play.

"Not a lot of teams go to the state final all four years. We know that Russellville is the team that gets to our level. We know what it takes to beat them, but we know it's going to be a big battle. You have to give 110 percent -- every single player so we can finish with a victory."

Sports on 05/16/2018

Print Headline: Rios key man in Panthers' midfield

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