As Pearl River coach Damon O’Keefe took a moment to reflect on the 2012 season, the shirt on his back seemed to rub salt in the wound.
The Pirates had high hopes last year with a loaded team that they thought would put them in section title contention in Class A. A first round playoff exit dashed those dreams, but O’Keefe still proudly wears the T-shirt.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was this shirt right here that said: ‘One goal: Get to the section championship,’ ” he said. “There is disappointment in the sense that we didn’t get further in the playoffs, but overall, the year that we had was a pretty fantastic season. Last year, we were dealing with a lot of emotional situations off the field that we were able to kind of get a better understanding of due to the game of soccer. Last year’s group was a great group that stayed together and stuck together.”
A tough loss against a talented Pelham team in the first round was a shot to the Pirates’ pride, but O’Keefe also hopes that some positives come out of it. This is a proud program that has had success in recent years, and last season came with its own unique lessons.
One difference is that no one is walking around Pearl River talking about section championships this preseason.
“The expectations are a lot lower,” senior Chris Coughlin said. “I think it’s better for us. I have a lot of revenge out there. I want to beat more teams, especially like Nyack, Pelham and Lakeland – teams that over the years have beat us. I want to get out and get them in my senior year. We’ve got a lot of young kids fighting for positions. Last year, most of the starters were coming back and we were confident. We’re working a lot harder at practice this year, so we’ll see what happens.”
• The first round loss to Pelham was especially shocking because the Pirates had handled the Pelicans in their regular season meeting by a score of 4-1. According to senior Brian Chiarello (pictured above), that may have given Pearl River a false sense of confidence. “I think we could have went a lot further,” he said. “We underestimated Pelham, because the one game when we beat them, we beat them pretty bad. We came in and thought it was going to be easy, and just got beat because we didn’t go out there do what we needed to do.”
• Class A probably has 10 or so teams who believe that they’ll be in the section title hunt every year, and therefore seeding can completely alter a team’s chances. Despite winning over 60 percent of its regular season games, Pearl River had to play its first playoff game on the road. O’Keefe said that he’s stressing to his team that they need to do everything possible to improve their seeding this season. “The learning experience that we did get last year – something different always kind of pops up – was that we finished 10-4-2 last year and thought we had a difficult schedule, but we ended up going on the road for the first round of the playoffs,” he said. “That was definitely a learning experience, and it’s something that we’re going to talk about here this year. Every game is important. We have 16 games this year that we feel we can win, but we also know that 12 out of those 16 games, we could easily lose. We’re going to be tested every day.”
• After fielding a veteran group in 2012, the Pirates will have much less experienced players on the field this year. They graduated several players, but three in particular who played critical roles — central midfielder Giovanni Galvano, top forward Alex Castillo and goalkeeper Austin Maggiolo. Replacing the production of those three will be priorities. “Yes and no,” O’Keefe said when I asked if it felt weird without those staples of the program around. “We now have guys who this is going to be their third year here, and we also have some fresh faces. It’s nice to have fresh faces. We have some young guys here who bring an excitement every single day; they bring a freshness every single day. They’re excited to be here – you can just tell by their body language… It’s also nice that they’re skilled and have some talent when it comes to playing soccer.”
• Galvano was kind of the face of the program, and there will be a few players who look to fill his role. He was the TJN Rockland player of the year as a junior and is currently trying out to play professionally in Italy. Despite playing defense throughout his varsity career, Coughlin is a guy who sounds like he’ll slot into the midfield and do some of the things that Galvano was responsible for in year’s past. “I think I can play more in the midfield – defensive midfield, or something like that. I’ll still keep my defensive position, but I want to help out attack more,” he said. “I’ve played there with club a few times and I’m comfortable up there.”
• Coughlin (pictured to the right) is regarded as one of the top defenders in Section 1, and he’s had some shut down performances against opposing team’s top scorers in recent seasons. But as Pearl River’s best overall player this year, O’Keefe says that he plans to use him in a variety of ways. “We’re going to have him everywhere,” he said. “The best part about Chris is that he can play anywhere for us. He can play in the back, of course. If you strictly put him in the back, it’s very simple to say that he’s one of the top five defenders here in the section – there’s no doubt about it. This year, we’re going to move him around in the midfield. He likes to get forward, he’s a big, big body – you can see he probably put on about 15 pounds of muscle this summer. He can be very dangerous in the box, and we’re going to look to push the pace a little bit with him. There’s no doubt about it. On the flip side of things, when we get to the games, we have Lakeland and we have Pelham this year. When we have to go man-mark certain guys, like an Aidan Murray for example – we all know that he’s going to be man-marked, pretty much – and if we have to use Chris to do that, Chris is a shutdown defender. You’ve seen that over the years, so he could do a lot for us. He can be very versatile for us.”
• Coughlin will have the freedom to move up and try to chip in some goals, which seems to be the biggest concern for the team now that Castillo and Galvano have graduated. Castillo tallied over 50 goals in his career, leading the team in each of his four varsity seasons. Galvano led the team in assists in that span, while also scoring 11 goals last season. “We definitely have to fill their spots,” Coughlin said. “Them two combined scored most of our goals over the past four years. Attack is going to be our problem. That’s what we have to start working on, and I want to help out.”
• Here’s O’Keefe’s take on who will help ease the scoring burden: “Right now, we can’t give you a definite answer on that one because we’re moving guys around on a consistent basis – Brian Chiarello being one of them,” he said. “He will play some forward this year, but he’ll also find himself in the midfield. It’s not fair to him to say that he’s going to be our leading scorer – we’re just looking for consistent scoring. That’s kind of been our issue over the last few years. If you look at last year’s group, Chris Coughlin was our third leading scorer with four goals – and he played in the back. We weren’t getting enough scoring out of our outside midfielders, out of our second forwards, and out of our central midfielders, at times. That has to change. We have to be more aggressive in the box, which is something that this team needs to learn. Some of these guys back from last year understand that, and if we can get five to six guys with eight goals or more, we’re going to be successful.”
• Chiarello is probably Pearl River’s most skilled offensive player, and he had a few games where he showed flashes of why some felt that he could take over up top for Castillo. Although it sounds like he’ll play more midfield this season, he spoke about wanting to be a more dependable scoring option. “Sometimes I’m not consistent, and this year I just want to come out and be great every game,” he said. “On the finishing end, definitely. I feel like I can definitely contribute to that, and with our forwards up there this year – they’re young – but they can finish. With me and Chris in the middle, we should be pretty good.”
• O’Keefe has some ninth and tenth graders who will received the majority of the playing time up top, and he sounds like he’s very high on them. Sophomores Sean Coughlin (Chris’ younger brother, who O’Keefe calls “very intelligent for his age”) and Brendan Gunn (who O’Keefe says “can add a lot of finesse to our game”), as well as freshman Kevin Dorley (“who is very creative,” O’Keefe says) sound like they’ll get the first cracks at it. Junior Ethan Dowley could also contribute offensively. “They’re young, but they’re very good. And they can finish. We should be pretty good up top,” Chiarello said. “They’ll definitely step up, it’s just a matter of how long it will take to happen.”
• On the back end, look for Matt Neroda and Vincenzo Galvano — both of whom are returning starters — to hold down the defense. Pearl River also has Brendan Valentine transferring from Albertus Magnus, and he could end up starting on D. “We still have Matt and Vincenzo back there, and they’re really strong,” Coughlin said. “I have full confidence in the two of them back there.”
• Replacing Maggiolo in goal will be Pat Guerin, and O’Keefe doesn’t sound like he thinks he’ll miss a beat. “Pat Guerin is going to have a very good season,” he said. “He’s been training a lot – he’s over in Westchester a lot – and he plays on one or two different club teams. I’m going to tell you that he plays probably about four or five times a week on a consistent basis. He works very hard, covers the goal very well and we’re very confident in his ability.”
• I’ll give the final word to Coughlin, who spoke about replacing some of the leaders that Pearl River lost to graduation: “I learned from the roles of the captains, like Giovanni, Austin and Alex Castillo and them,” he said. “I want to fulfill their spots. It’s the job of the seniors and the captains to step up and do that. I’m going to take a much larger role in the middle of the field.”
File photos from The Journal News