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As I walked through the hallways of Pelham High with boys soccer coach Terence Huvane, he spoke to me about the importance of remembering that these are students first, then athletes. It’s no secret that expectations are high this season for the Pelicans with more than three-quarters of their starting unit back, but Huvane doesn’t want his team to lose sight of the big picture.
Ironically, as he spoke about his desire to shape his team into a group of young men who are ready to succeed later in life, we happened to be passing Pelham’s athletic trophy case.
“I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to add a trophy to that,” I commented.
“That would be nice, too,” Huvane said with big smile.
The Pelicans seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough season — one in which they could take the next step from one of the better teams in Class A to being a serious section title contender. They reached the semifinals in 2011 and played eventual section finalist Byram Hills tough in the quarters last year, so they’ve tasted some recent playoff success.
You could argue that no team in its class returns as many critical pieces as Pelham does, but that means nothing if it doesn’t translate into wins on the field.
“This is definitely a big year for us,” senior forward Aidan Murray said. “It’s sort of a culmination of a four-year process; just continuing to step up. This is a big year for us to make that final push and go for a sectional title to reach expectations.”
• Of course, with what Huvane estimates to be “11 or 12″ returning players who received significant playing time last year, one of his biggest challenges will be managing those high expectations. “We talk about just trying to do things the right away and get a little bit better every single day,” he said. “Each practice builds upon the last, and we try to get a little bit better with each practice. Today we focused on shooting; tonight we do open play and try to incorporate the drills we do in the morning into the evening practice. That’s the big message to the kids, is to not try to do too much.”
• Murray spoke about what it’s like to walk into a locker room with so many familiar faces from last year’s team. “It’s pretty special, and it’s also lucky,” he said. “Basically every year, most teams are like, ‘We lost this guy, or that guy.’ For us, we did lose some guys, but we feel like we have guys in certain spots that are key positions that will make an impact. And we’re going to bring up some guys who will fill in for the guys who (have graduated).”
• While there are many talented players on the roster for Pelham, Murray will be the guy who garners the most attention from opposing coaches. He was one of the top goal scorers in the section last season, and should be near the top of the leaderboard again this year. He’s big, quick and explosive — a deadly combination — but most importantly, he has a knack for finding the back of the net. “Aidan is a special player,” Huvane said. “We all know that, and we’ve all seen that. We know that he’s going to be the focus of defenses this year, as he should be. He deserves that. He’s earned that respect. Our job is to elevate other scorers – to get other guys involved in the scoring so that he doesn’t feel the pressure to score multiple goals a game. You can’t do that, cause that’s when things start to go wrong and kids start to try and do too much. It’s all about playing within yourself, so our focus is going to be to try and bring more scorers into the fold so that the burden is not entirely on Aidan.”
• Murray — who told me that he’ll be playing at Amherst College next year — can expect to be man-marked in pretty much every game, and learning to deal with the frustration that comes with that is an important part of his evolution as a player. “Just keep a cool head,” Murray said. “You’ve got to just help the team out. If you’re not scoring goals, maybe help other guys to score goals, cause it’s more about the team winning than grabbing all of the headlines or scoring goals. I’m really just trying to take what defenses give me and find the right spot to play. If that’s being a playmaker, I’ll be a playmaker. If it’s being a goal-scorer, I’ll be a goal-scorer. You do what you’ve got to do.”
• While Murray is the most dangerous player for the Pelicans, it wouldn’t be wise to count out his teammates. Fellow senior and four-year varsity player Charlie Livingstone (pictured to the right) is one of the better central midfielders in Class A, and he’ll played a multi-faceted role. Not only will Livingstone be crucial when it comes to possession, but he also said that he’s looking to chip in more goals this season. “I think I had a down year last year,” Livingstone said. “Sophomore year, I played well, and then last year I just wasn’t ready. Everybody has been working during the summer. Ricarti (Basso), he didn’t have his greatest year last year, but me and him and a couple of other guys were working a lot during the summer. We think for sure we’re going to get a lot of goals from other guys.”
• Livingstone could be a guy who ends up with 10 or so goals, but he stressed that his most important role will be acting as a leader on the defensive end. “Our midfield is actually fairly experienced, but I kind of have to direct them and make sure that they know what they’re doing,” he said. “Make sure everybody gets back – that’s the biggest thing. Defensively, we have to be solid, and then we can go forward because we know we have Aidan who can run behind and always get us a goal. We have to be defensively solid, so that’s where I’ll make sure that we’re in a nice, tight block of eight when we’re defending.”
• In Livingstone and Basso, Pelham has two linchpin midfielders who can support Murray up top. On the back end, it will be Basso’s younger brother Otavio Basso leading the charge after being named All-Section as a sophomore. Livingstone called him, “the leader of the defense.” Will Baffuto also started as a sophomore on defense last year, so there is talent all over the field for the Pelicans.
• Goalkeeper will be a position to keep an eye for Pelham this season. It started last year in flux after projected starter Vincent Mazzaro was injured before the season started, forcing Huvane to go with freshman Matthew O’Neill. O’Neill had some initial growing pains, but really came on strong late in the season. His performance makes it difficult to take away his starting job, but with Mazzaro now fully healthy, Huvane is happy to have some options. “He’s really done a nice job for us,” Huvane said of O’Neill. “He stepped into a real big hole last year. The keeper who was injured last year has done very well, and he comes back and looks very sharp. We also have another keeper – a hockey player who was injured last year and couldn’t play – and he’s done very well. The keeper situation that was a question mark last year has taken some nice shape this year.”
• In terms of which formation Pelham will use, Huvane said that he’s still playing around with some different ideas. Murray has been used almost exclusively as the lone forward up top in his career, and told me that is where he’s most comfortable. But if Huvane figures out a better way to free up his best player, he’s not going to rule it out. “We’re still trying to work out our system,” Huvane said. “We’re wavering between a couple different shapes. We have had an injury or two here and there that might reconfigure how we want to do things, so we haven’t decided where we’re going to put Aidan, or some of the other players. That’s something that we’ll build on.”
• Although there will be a lot of experienced players on this team, Murray and Livingstone should be the undisputed leaders. Both seem to have good heads on their shoulders, and both preached not getting caught up in the high expectations. “It’s really great because eight or nine guys started last year and played significant minutes,” Livingstone said. “We have those guys coming back, and me and Aidan have both been here for four years, so we know how to play and what varsity is like. With the guys coming up, we think we have a lot of good players that could start and play. We’re going to teach them and show them how to play varsity. Play physical, play quick and I think we have a really good chance.”
• While Huvane certainly didn’t want to focus on any hypotheticals, it’s sort of my job. Port Chester has been the most dangerous team in Class A for the past few seasons, but the Rams will be competing in Class AA this year. That certainly makes the path to a section title a bit less trying. Perennial powers such as Byram Hills and Lakeland may be the front-runners, but Pelham may have the best combination of experience and talent out of any team in the class. “They’re excited,” Huvane said of his players. “They were eager to get back. We talked about what we’ve been doing the last couple of years – to make it to the semis two years ago and the quarters last year, going out against a very good Byram Hills team. The message is do things the right way. Be consistent, get better every day, and we’ll see how deep we can go. The buzz is the buy-in. They know what we’re trying to do, and we’re all focused together on it.”
• I’ll give the final word to Huvane: “It really helps out because the leadership is there, the skill set is there and we’re doing good things. The level is rising, and a rising tide lifts small ships. The players around the veterans get better, too, by watching what they do, by participating and moving along with them… We’re excited to be in that (section title) conversation, for sure.”
Video by Vincent Z. Mercogliano/Photo by Ricky Flores