North Rockland wasn’t a team that many people were talking about as a section title contender prior to last season, but they sure were talking about the Red Raiders by season’s end.
They went on a tremendous run to the Class AA final, losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to eventual state champ Arlington. One year later, no one will be sleeping on North Rockland, but the challenges of getting back to the title game will be daunting.
“Last year was awesome,” senior defender Chris Aherne said. “We had a lot of great kids here and went really far on a great run. I think it’s really motivating us to make it back, because the section championship last year was awful. We really want to get back there again. We’re going to work hard and do whatever we can to get back there.”
The bar was raised in coach Chris Dwyer’s first season at the helm, but maintaining that level of success will be no easy task. The Red Raiders bring back just five players who spent the entire 2012 season on the varsity roster, so the turnover will be significant.
“The kids that coming back this year are good players, and they were big for us last year on our run,” said Aherne, one of North Rockland’s few returning starters. “I think they’ll help us out, and the JV team last year was really good. They won the county championship twice in a row, so I think they’re going to help us out. I think we’ll be fine.”
• Unfortunately, I must have double-tapped the record button on my phone, because it says my interview with Dwyer lasted less than one second. As riveting as that short gasp of air may be, I don’t really have any quotes to offer from North Rockland’s second-year head coach. But based on our conversation, I can tell you that he sounded supremely confident in the players that he is bringing up from JV. He basically had to fill 15-18 roster spots, but he didn’t seem to think that there would be a significant talent drop off. He said his biggest concern was how quickly the team would mesh. “Coach says, ‘As long as you put in effort, you don’t have to be good. As long as you hustle on the field, winning is under your control,’ ” senior defender Bryan Martinez told me.
• The biggest loss for the Red Raiders is reigning TJN Rockland player of the year Steven Hegner in goal. He had a tremendous senior season, and was the backbone of the team — making several “wow”-type saves late in the season. Taking his place will be junior Brendan Madden, who I was told has had a very good offseason. He has big cleats to fill, but he seems to have the full support of his teammates. “Steven was great for us and made some amazing saves, but I think Brendan Madden is a good player,” Aherne said. “He knows what he’s doing in there and he has some experience, so he’ll be fine. Defensively, we’re going to be strong. We’re not going to give a lot of goals up, so we’ll be able to stay in games.”
• Being a stout defensive team was what North Rockland hung its hat on last season. The Red Raiders rarely blew teams out, but they won a whopping 14 — that’s right, 14 — one-goal games. Hegner was a huge part of that, but so was the defensive unit in front of him. Two of those four starters have graduated — Rafael Aguilar and Ronnie Crover — but Aherne (pictured to the right) and Martinez are each back. They will be counted on to make the transition to Madden in goal go smoothly. “We have a lot of players that are gone,” Aherne said. “Defensively, we’re losing Ronnie and Rafael, so me and Bryan are going to have to step up in the back and lead the kids.”
• Winning so many close games last year covered up the fact that, at times, North Rockland struggled to score goals. They gave up very few — Hegner tied a school-record with 13 shutouts — which is why they had so much success. But when I asked the players about their biggest concern for this season, it was finding more offense. “I’m probably concerned about scoring the most – trying to get as many goals as possible,” Martinez said. “Last year, we didn’t score a lot, but we played defense. I think it will probably be the same this year.”
• The Red Raiders’ most creative player was Will Lopez, who led the county with 14 assists, but he has graduated. Now, Dwyer said he’ll look to senior forward John Salto to be his top option offensively. “Most definitely,” Salto said when I asked if he’s confident that he can pick up some of the scoring slack. “I’m going to be putting some goals not in the net, but not only me.”
• Another guy who is capable of scoring some goals is junior forward Pat Dentico. He was on the team last year as a sophomore, so he’ll be looking to step into a more prominent role. Traditionally, North Rockland has used a 4-4-2 formation, and last year they rotated about four or five forwards. Dwyer talked about some guys coming up from JV with speed and finishing ability, so you can probably expect to see a similar system in place. Salto said he prefers to play with a second forward because it gives the team more flexibility. “We always play with two forwards,” he said. “We’ve got plays. Having two players up gives us more chances to score. ”
• I’ll give the final word to Aherne, who spoke about why he thinks the Red Raiders will be in it again this season: “We work really hard every day,” he said. “We might not be the most talented team, but we’re going to work 110 percent and outwork teams every game. I think we’re going to do well this year.”
File photos from The Journal News