Was it really only three years ago that the Port Allegany boys soccer team managed just a single win in its first attempt at playing a varsity schedule? Seems like a lot longer than that, after last year’s squad finished 9-4-1 in the Upper Allegheny Valley Soccer League’s North division – good for second place behind Elk County Catholic – before falling to eventual district champion Brookville in a second-round playoff match and completing the season with an 11-7-1 overall record.
“Overall, it was a very positive experience in the playoffs,” head coach Aaron Clark said. “The kids did well even in our loss. It was a good learning experience for the kids coming back this year; they got to see what it takes to win in the playoffs. This year, we’re hoping for a minimum of 10 wins and the playoffs, and then just go as far as we can. Those are the goals we told the kids; that’s what we want to focus on.”
Judging by their performance at last weekend’s Galeton tournament, the Gators appear to be off to a good start. They knocked off perennial District 4 playoff contender Sullivan County – a team that dominated Port 5-0 in last year’s final – by a 4-2 score, before falling 3-1 to Northeast Bradford in the championship game.
Seven starters graduated from last year’s team, including tri-captains Derek Brookens (sweeper), Tyler Payne (midfielder), and Ryan Sabolcik (goalkeeper). Seniors Denzel Middleton, Max Parana, Jon Binder, and Kirby Elliott will step into those roles, but according to Clark, he has a team full of leaders.
“They’re all good kids. I don’t think they need a lot of ‘leadership,’ because they’ve got one another,” he said. “I know that sounds corny, but I think that they can kind of watch out for themselves. They don’t need me screaming at them, trying to get them to want to win games. There are a lot of kids on the team that want to do well every single game, every practice. That’s a plus.”
Willie Postlewait and Frank Austin spent the summer competing for the right to replace Sabolcik in goal, with Postlewait in the lead heading into the season. “Right now, it’s Willie’s job to lose,” Clark said.
Whoever eventually claims the job will have the experienced Middleton and Parana in front of him at center back. Senior Josh Fox and junior Max Morris are the outside fullbacks, with sophomores Elliott Binder and James Coxen subbing in.
Last year, Elliott became the second Gator to earn Big 30 All-Star honors, notching two hat tricks on his way to a team-leading 12 goals. Barring injury, he and junior Ken Kysor should anchor the midfield, along with Binder, senior Kyle Conway, and junior Sam Shaffer. Junior Ben Osani and freshman Sam Kysor are the probable starters at forward; Osani came on strong late last season, scoring both of Port’s goals in the playoff loss at Brookville.
Last year, the Gators came up just short of catching ECC for the division title, and Clark, who will be assisted by Matt Lawton again this season, expects more of the same in 2009.
“I think it’s going to be tight again,” he said. “I see ECC being good, I see Kane, Smethport, us being pretty good, Coudersport – I think they’re going to surprise people. I think Coudersport’s going to be a good team. I honestly see five teams that can make a push to win the league title. There’s no way of knowing who’s going to get it.”
He continued, “I think we’re in the mix. I’m not going to make any predictions at all, but I think any one of those five teams can win it – which is good, because a couple of years ago it was basically ECC and Kane. Those were the only two teams with a chance at it. Now, it’s wide open.”
Asked for one word to define his team, Clark replied, “Optimistic. We’ve got a good young team. I think that depending on how certain positions shake out, we could have a better year than last year, but … maybe I should say cautiously optimistic.”