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For the first time since anyone can remember, Byram Hills is entering a season without a true go-to goal scorer.
The Bobcats have benefited in years past from the presence of a proven commodity at the forward position, but it’s a new era in Armonk. Jon Berry — the 2012 Large School Player of the Year and leading scorer in Section 1 — is gone, which leaves Byram with a glaring hole up top.
One way or another, the Bobcats are going to have to find a way to put the ball in the back of the net.
“I’m just going to address the elephant in the room: Not having the Jon Berry player this year is definitely going to hurt us, but we keep on talking about it,” senior Sam Ganeles said. “We need to find 28 goals for us, which is how many Jon scored last year. It’s not going to come from one player this year – it’s going to come from two, three or maybe even four players.”
While I stood on the sidelines and watched Byram practice on Thursday, they were playing with a two-forward system in place — a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in recent years. At least for now, the days of relying on one guy to handle the majority of the scoring load are gone. And the Bobcats’ title chances will be based largely on how quickly they are able to adjust.
“The preseason speech to them was, ‘This is the first year in a long time where we don’t have one guy,’ but again, it’s not really replacing Berry. It’s changing our philosophy, and our philosophy has always been to go to one person. This year, it’s going to be many people,” coach Matty Allen said. “Even though Berry scored 28 goals last year, he scored 28 out of 39 goals last year. I told them that we need to keep the total around the same, we’re just going to have to spread the wealth. I told them our goal this year is to have five guys score at least eight goals, and to try to get to 50 in 16 games.”
• While Allen spoke about spreading out the scoring, the guy who he seems to be most excited about is senior David Lachs (pictured to the right). He played mostly in the midfield last season, but will move up to forward. Lachs was named MVP of the Lakeland summer league and led the team in goals, so the hope is that he will become the No. 1 option. (Remember, Berry was named the MVP of the Lakeland league last summer, so Allen’s hope is that they get similar results this time around.) “It was big,” Lachs said of the confidence that he gained over the summer. “Whenever you have a guy with 28 goals in one season, you need to have guys to replace him. It felt good to come out and win.”
• Allen views Lachs as his best option at the moment, but in a two-forward system, all of the pressure won’t just be on one player. Lachs repeated said it will be “a combined effort.” Bennett Kramer (pictured to the right) will likely be the other starting forward, and Allen also wants to see his midfielders get involved. “David is coming off of the MVP in the summer league, which gave him a lot of confidence. He’s been playing that way and acting that way. We look for him to be our top guy,” Allen said. “We have a junior, his name is Bennett Kramer, who was the guy who came in off the bench for Berry to give him spells. We look for him to be second in command there. But again, if you play with more than one forward – which I think we will – I’m kind of hoping that we get outside wings to become better players. I have two really strong shooters in the midfield – Sam Potash and Brenner London – so I’m kind of hoping that those two guys are our third and fourth scorers.”
• There’s no way to spin the loss of Berry into a positive, but it’s difficult not to wonder if this new system will make the team less predictable. It was obvious towards the end of the year that opposing teams were honing in on Berry, but it will be very difficult for them to man-mark anyone on the Bobcats this season. “I think definitely having a player as strong as Berry and as good as Berry in some ways was a challenge for us, just because we became so dependent on him and teams knew that right from the beginning,” Ganeles said. “They would scheme for him in practice and man-mark him, and if it wasn’t working for us to get the ball to Jon, it really hurt us. So I think it can help us if we become a more versatile team. Eventually, once we work the kinks out, we’ll have two or three weapons up top, and it will be nearly impossible for teams to mark us. That’s our goal.”
• Berry is the big name, but Byram lost 10 seniors from a team that reached the Class A section final last season. Two-year starting goalie Ryan Golden is gone, but the Bobcats never seem to lose a step when it comes to their keeper. “I’m actually really not concerned about the defense, mainly because every year most of my defenders have been one-year players. I’m not concerned in goal at all. I lose Ryan, who was a great leader and a great spokesman, but I pick up Jack Weitzman,” Allen said. “I don’t think we’ll miss a beat. I think we’ll actually be stellar in net. As far as the back four is concerned, we had a lot of guys get game experience in there, so I think they’ll fill in pretty nicely.”
• The leader of the defense — and perhap Byram’s best player — will be Ganeles. He was outstanding as a junior while playing multiple positions in the back, and he seemed to get better with each passing game. Allen said that he’ll probably be his starting center back, but noted that he has the ability to move around. “I think Sam – I don’t think he’s the best player in Section 1 – but I think he’s definitely one of the most versatile players in Section 1,” Allen said. “He’s one of the guys who will probably play center back for us, but he could be playing center forward for us. The danger about him is that if he sticks his mind to playing defense, he’ll play defense. But if he wants to go forward, he can go forward and score. He’s really diverse… The biggest thing for him is that the team is going to have to learn when he’s going to forward, and when he’s going to stay back.”
• Ganeles says he’ll do whatever it takes to win, but noted that he enjoys the challenge of shutting down an opposing team’s top scorer. “Personally, I like drawing the assignments of marking the other team’s biggest player, like Pelham’s Aidan Murray or (Port Chester’s) Stevie Hernandez, just to name two,” he said. “I like marking that guy, but I can also play left back to help the offense, and maybe even step into defensive midfield. I’m prepared to play a bunch of different positions. Wherever the team needs me to play.”
• The Bobcats will be breaking in a new keeper, but with Ganeles and an experienced defense in front of Weitzman, they expect the transition to be smooth. “I have personally always felt like Jack is one of my best friends, and he’s a very good goalkeeper,” Ganeles said. “He’s going to help me a lot, but we’re all going to help each other. Petton (Levine) and Yianni (Lambos) both do have experience from last year as outside backs, and I think they’re going to play some center back, as well. It will be important for me with the experience that I have – especially playing last year against some of the top teams – to communicate with these guys and really help coach them.”
• Byram was also very strong in the midfield last year with Lachs (pictured to the left), plus Joshua Beinhacker and Justin Pollack, who have both graduated. They’ll be using less proven players there, but Potash, London and Cole Tannor all have some experience. This is the type of program that always has great numbers, and usually has guys ready to step into bigger roles. “Whenever you have 60-something kids coming to tryouts, you’re always going to have new kids stepping up,” Lachs said. “Mr. Allen has done a great job of that, and I’m sure he’s going to keep it going when we leave.”
• Allen — who also serves as the president of the Section 1 coaches association — is one of the most committed and respected coaches in the section, which explains why he’s won four section titles with the Bobcats. Lachs spoke about why he thinks his coach has been so successful. “I don’t even know if he tries to be, but you can see he’s pretty intimidating for some of the younger kids,” he said. “Whenever you have an intimidation factor, you always go out there and try harder.”
• Allen won those four section titles in a span of six years, but he hasn’t raised a trophy since 2010. That doesn’t seem like a long time for most programs, but the expectations are slightly different at Byram. “It’s been three years,” Allen said. “In my estimation, if you get to the semis and the finals, you’re playing with house money. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that we believe that we should be there. Our goal this year, along with other years, is to win our last game. That’s our mentality.”
• The title “drought” has made it four titles in eight years for Byram, but as Allen points out, each year that they’ve been eliminated it’s either come in overtime or penalty kicks. “When we lose, we lose right,” he said with a laugh.
• Of course, the team that has stood in Byram’s way each of the past two seasons has been Port Chester. The Rams beat them in PKs in the semifinals in 2011, and then won in OT in last year’s Class A final. Now, PC has been moved up to Class AA, which takes the Bobcats’ top competition out of the field. And while they recognize that will make their path to a title easier, they also seemed slightly disappointed. “Port Chester is a great team and the program is really getting a lot better,” Ganeles said. “They’re our huge rivals right now. It’s kind of tough that they’re becoming AA, so we don’t get them again. But I think that we do use it as motivation, and every day we think about Stevie Hernandez scoring and that feeling. I remember having seniors come up to me and be like, ‘Remember this feeling.’ And that’s true for all of us. We use it as motivation to get back to that place this year.”
• I’ll give the final word to Ganeles, who spoke about the expectations that come with playing in the Byram Hills program. “I think that we take it one game at a time. Coach Allen really preaches that, and it’s really important for us to just focus on Briarcliff and that first game. We don’t want to get caught looking ahead to the section final,” he said. “Like coach Allen says, ‘We’re playing on the shoulders of giants.’ We understand that, and we understand the expectations of being a Byram Hills soccer player. We don’t take it for granted.”
Video by Vincent Z. Mercogliano/File photos from The Journal News