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For a kid who put together one of the best postseason runs – if not the best postseason run – that we’ve ever seen from a freshman, Port Chester’s Steven Hernandez sure didn’t let the success go to this head.
After scoring seven postseason goals – including five go-ahead goals – at the tender age of 14, many players might start to get an inflated ego. But for Hernandez, it’s all about turning the page and keeping the focus on his team.
“It was a great experience,” he said of the Rams’ run to the Class A state final last season. “We had a lot of good players, we were a good team and we had good chemistry. But the past is gone, and it’s a new beginning this season.”
In a town filled with tremendous soccer talent, Hernandez managed to capture their imaginations during last year’s magical run. After a solid regular season, he went on a tear in the postseason, including scoring the golden goal in PC’s overtime win over Byram Hills in the section final.
He’s decided to pass on any U.S. Academy opportunities, which sets Port Chester up with a guy who may be considered the best player in the section sooner rather than later.
“His brother (Victor Hernandez) succeeded at a young age, too, but I was not his coach. I was the JV coach back then,” coach John Cafaldo said when I asked if he’s ever seen a player like Steven come through the program. “Having him helps everyone around him. He’s sort of beyond his years with soccer, and he can take over a game. And he’s not afraid to work. It didn’t go to his head. I push him, and I know a lot of his friends, they push him still. I think that leadership that he provides and a couple other guys that will step up this year will be the key to what we do.”
• Hernandez (pictured to the right) scored four goals during the regular season while playing mostly in the midfield, but a move that Cafaldo made in their first playoff game would alter Port Chester soccer history. “It was pretty wild,” Cafaldo said of Hernandez’s postseason eruption. “I was very nervous in the first round against Rye because we went into the half at 0-0 and we were a couple guys short with injuries. I had to make the move and put him up front, because he was playing the mid for us. As you look back on it, it was amazing. Everyone knew – a lot of people talked about him before the season last year and they said he was a key guy – but that came out of the blue. He had a good year – he was an assist guy – and all of a sudden, he just exploded. It was just at the right time. We couldn’t ask for much more.”
• Here’s senior Alejandro Coyt on what it was like witnessing Hernandez come up with big goal after big goal. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “He basically put the team on his back. It was awesome.”
• Hernandez will be a marked man this season who is sure to draw double and triple teams. He started seeing those in the playoffs, so he feels like he’s ready to handle whatever is thrown at him this year. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but you just have to stay calm and look for open players.”
• The return of Hernandez is huge for the Rams, but their other losses are significant. You could argue that after Hernandez, the next five or six most important players from last year’s state finalist team have graduated. It seems like an overwhelming task, but PC is a hotbed for soccer, and seems to regenerate its talent year after year. “It’s a soccer town,” Cafaldo said. “A lot of feeder systems, and our JV and modified programs have been doing great over the years. They see what happens, the success, and of course you’re going to get more people coming out of the woodwork. You haven’t seen them before, and all of a sudden you get an 11th grader who shows up with some talent.”
• The one who will probably be the most difficult to replace is goalkeeper Jose Gonzalez, who is currently playing at Iona College. “He was up here for four years,” Cafaldo said. “It’s huge. He was another guy who was a huge leader for us, and right now, we have a couple of guys who are in contention for it: Two backups from last year and one of the guys from JV. It’s up in the air right now. It’s up for grabs, and I’m looking to see who’s going to work and improve. But yeah, that’s probably the biggest spot. We’re going to miss him big time.”
• Cafaldo said that the starting keeper spot will come down to juniors Mark Macias and Rafael Reyes. Macias was Gonzalez’s backup last season, while Reyes was the starting goalie for the JV team. He called the competition even at this point, saying that he wants see each in scrimmage action before making a decision.
• Other key losses include midfielders William Ribiero and Preston Higgins, and defenders Bryan Suertegaray and Alexis Valdovinos. When it wasn’t Hernandez scoring, it was probably Ribiero, Higgins or Valdovinos. And Suertegaray was PC’s rock in the back. In total, the Rams lost six starters to graduation, but junior Rodrigo Campos tore his ACL during the offseason, so you could call it seven. “We just have to fight through it,” Hernandez said. “A lot of players will step up. That’s what we’re looking for.”
• Cafaldo said that they’ll be playing a lot of young players this year. “For us this year, a lot of young kids are going to have to step up,” he said. “We’ve been lucky in the past. We’ve had a couple of guys that were around town and went to school here, but didn’t play. They were older and they had experience. They played outside of here and came in, like Will Ribiero last year. This year, we’re going to have to rely on younger guys who are coming up from JV. They’ve played, but they’re going to have to make the transition quickly to the varsity level.”
• There are only two seniors who are expected to start — Coyt (pictured to the left) in the midfield and Josiah Marin at center back. Both guys got playing time last year, but neither started consistently. “Starting off from when we’re young – maybe five or six years old – everyone is already playing around here. You can never really underestimate what our talent can bring out,” Coyt said. “I’m going to have to take control. I know I didn’t get much time last year, but this year I’m going to really step up my game a whole lot and be a leader.”
• Making PC’s task of breaking in several new starters even more difficult will be a change in class. After years of competing in Class A, the Rams have been moved up to Class AA. They’ll be dealing with bigger teams with deeper talent bases to choose from, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how they adapt. “We haven’t been a big team in awhile,” Cafaldo said. “We’ve got a couple tall lanky kids, but no one who is oversized. We try to possess the ball and use our speed. We have skill, and it’s been working.”
• Cafaldo said that he has adjusted his team’s schedule to help them be better prepared for the Class AA postseason. The matchup everyone will be waiting to see is when the Rams play defending state champ Arlington, who they could also run into deep in the playoffs. “I think it’s going to be a huge challenge for everyone,” he said. “We’re in a tough enough league as it is with Byram, and now with Keio moving in. Also, we’ve added a state champion in Arlington, but we also added White Plains, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, East Fishkill, Greeley is in our league, so it’s going to be tough. I think our league will help us, but I added and made the calls to get those games because they’re elite teams.”
• I’ll give the final word to Hernandez, who gave a simple answer when I asked about his goals for this season. “Go further than we did last year,” he said, not leaving himself with many options. “Hopefully, we win states.”
Video by Vincent Z. Mercogliano/File photos from The Journal News