For most coaches, any mention of a section championship in the preseason is taboo. As soon as I bring it up, the subject is quickly changed and some generic response about a day-by-day approach is given.
That is not the case at Lakeland.
“You read other coaches, and they kind of say that we’re taking it one game at a time,” Lakeland coach Tim Hourahan said. “Every single day in practice we talk about a situation that has come up in sectionals. We’ve been in three finals since I’ve been here. We want to play in the sectional final. That’s our goal, and we’re not afraid to talk about it every day.”
If there was ever a time for the Hornets to scale back the bravado, it would probably be now. They’ve been one of the best teams in Class A in recent years — winning a section title in 2011 and reaching the semifinals last season — but they were hit hard by graduation. Gone are critical 12 players, including seven starters, but the confidence at Lakeland has not wavered.
The Hornets will certainly be younger this season, but they don’t believe that means that they won’t be as good.
“The team is a little bit different, but I feel like through summer league and everything, we’ve gotten better as a team,” junior forward Devin Flanagan said. “I feel like we can be just as strong as last year. Other teams have also lost their seniors and their older players. There are other young teams also, so I feel like we can compete just as well. I feel like we can win a section title.”
• The entire Lakeland team was wearing T-shirts that had the initials “G.I.B.” on the back. I asked Hourahan what it stood for. “It stands for ‘Get It Back,’ ” he said. “The only word that we’re concerned about right now is “it” – the it factor of the belief, the mystic of Lakeland soccer, winning home games and getting yourself into the sectional tournament. We’re working on the “it” part right now. Even the JV team breaks the huddle at the end of practice and says, ‘Get It Back,’ so it’s a program goal. It’s the only thing we talk about every year.”
• Perhaps the biggest reason that the Hornets sound so confident is because sophomore Johnny Denis (pictured to the left) is still wearing their uniform. The ultra-talented central midfielder was a full-time starter last season, and as expected, the U.S. Academy came calling this offseason. For awhile, it appeared as if Denis might defect, but he has decided to stick with high school soccer. Hourahan said he was “the happiest guy in Section 1” when Denis informed him of his decision, and already calls him Lakeland’s best player. “Shoot, he’s in the national pool,” Hourahan said. “I think more so than his skills, it’s just his intelligence. The type of passes and the crafty passes that you might not even see from the sideline or expect to happen – what he does is he puts the ball in a great position for someone else to take one touch and shoot. It’s basically his intelligence with the ball and his ability to find seams. His passing is as good as it gets, and again, it’s is free kicks, which the majority of our goals come from. We’ll look to get some there from him, as well.”
• While Denis played a lot of minutes as a freshman, pretty much every other starter from the midfield up is gone. The biggest loss is midfielder Gonzalo Prando, who led the team with 18 goals — including a midseason stretch in which he recorded back-to-back hat tricks. Midfielder Timmy O’driscol and forward Patryk Seweryn will also be tough to replace, so offensive production is probably the Hornets’ biggest concern. The guy who Lakeland is hoping will step up is Flanagan, who led the team with nine goals in their summer league. “I feel like they know how to play me the ball and know where I’m going to be,” Flanagan said. “When I get the ball, I do my job and finish it up top. If I do my job for the team, they’re going to do their job for me.”
• Flanagan up top and Denis in the midfield will be the big guns for Hourahan, but he said that he plans to use a two-forward system with senior Edwin Hernandez playing along side Flanagan. He also sounded high on freshman Nick Foci, who Hourahan said won’t start, but will play. “Our No. 1 scorer in the summer was a junior Devin Flanagan,” he said. “As a sophomore, he was a reserve midfielder and played a little defense for us. Very crafty, great finisher – he had nine goals out of our 24 in the summer league. He’s going to be our main guy up top, but I think we’re going to get a ton of goals from Johnny off of set pieces and free kicks. He’s a free kick specialist who can swing the ball. He scored directly off of a corner kick in the summer league. So, we have those two guys, and then we have a bunch of other guys looking to help out. Edwin, who started against Byram Hills in the sectional semis. He was a kid who actually played JV the first half of the year as a junior, and when we called him up, he scored two goals – one versus Beacon, and one versus Saunders in sectionals. We’re looking for him to be the bigger guy up top, with Devin being the craftier.”
• Flanagan spoke about how well he feels that he and Denis work together. “We play together on our summer club team, and we have very good chemistry,” he said. “On the high school field, it’s just another game. We play well together, and we finish well together.”
• While it seemed like a minor concern, Flanagan wasn’t practicing today with a strained Achilles. He said he’s at “70-80 percent” and doesn’t expect to miss significant time. “It’s only going to be two weeks,” he said. “I’ll be back on the field. I’ll miss probably the first two, but I’m looking at hitting every game after that.”
• The strength of this Lakeland team will be on the back end, where all of its returning starters not named Denis reside. The most important player will probably be second-year starting goalkeeper Reggis Mora (pictured above). There’s been a long line of successful keepers at Lakeland — remember 2011 TJN Westchester/Putnam player of the year Steven Reiche — and Hourahan is looking to see Mora take the next step as one of the top goalies in the section this season. “That was the big talk that we had,” Hourahan said. “Actually, as a freshman, the kid was a starting center midfielder on my JV team. We knew Reiche had one year left, and we were looking for a kid who had a little bit of a nutty attitude with good reaction and good hands. As a sophomore, he didn’t play a second behind Reiche, and last year was his first year starting. He had a great, great year for us. He gave us a chance to win the whole thing, and we asked him to take the next step this year – to be a leader, be a senior. Other guys are looking up to him – we have two juniors behind him – and he also has to get one of those guys ready for next year. It’s a different role. He was baby-faced last year, and now he’s a returning starter. There shouldn’t be any rookie mistakes at that position.”
• Mora is an athlete — that’s not difficult to notice when you watch him play — but one of Hourahan’s concerns with him last season was his ability to communicate with his defense. He’s a soft-spoken kid, but he seems to have more confidence now as a senior. “I do feel good, but I still want to do more. I’m more confident in the goal than I was last year,” Mora said. “I’m more confident in my punts. (Also), now I’m more comfortable talking to the team from back there.”
• The only three-year starter for the Hornets is senior Jon Pinto (pictured to the right), who has a reputation for being one of the best man-marking defenders in the section. He famously shutout Port Chester’s best player Kevin Riveros in the 2011 section final, and didn’t allow Byram Hills’ Jon Berry — the top scorer in the section last year — to score in their semifinals meeting. Pinto was expected to start for Lakeland at center back this season, but he was sitting out of practice with a knee injury. Junior Gino Cassese is another returning starter on defense, and Hourahan said that he’ll probably fill Pinto’s spot until he’s ready to return. The defense is expected to stout. “We have a goalie who has a chance to be a top goalie in the section,” Hourahan said. “If our center back comes back and gets healthy, he’s a top defender in the section. We have a junior captain (Cassese) who we’re going to play as a holding center midfielder behind Johnny (Denis) who is about as good as it gets in the middle of the field winning balls and squaring the ball out.”
• To me, it seems like this Lakeland team could resemble the section title team from ’11. The Hornets might not have an explosive offensive team, but they also shouldn’t give up very many goals. “We’re going to play a different system,” Hourahan said. “We’re going to try and defend with five, at times, and we’re going to attack with five at times. Really, as long as we keep our shape in the back and find Johnny going on transitions, or find Johnny going on counters, we’re going to score enough goals. I’m not trying to say that we’re going to win every game 1-0 like we did a few years ago. Obviously, that’s a heart attack waiting to happen. But the strength is going to be in the back.”
• Midfield was the position where Lakeland was hit the hardest by graduation. Other names who came up who should play alongside Denis are senior Brandon Dias and freshman Matias Prando (Gonzalo’s younger brother).
• Hourahan is always great with giving me random (but useful) stats, and this one really stood out to me. It stresses the importance of winning as many regular season games as possible. “I’ve been the head coach for eight years, and we’ve been in the semifinals six years,” he said. “This is a good stat for you: We’ve had three away games in the semifinals, and we’re 0-3. We’ve had three home games in the semifinals, and we’re 3-0. We want to win enough games in the regular season to put us in a spot in the semifinals where we have a home game so we can play in the big match.”
• I’ll give the final word to Hourahan, who spoke about coaching one of the youngest teams that he’s had in his tenure. “I’ll tell you what I told these guys on the very first day of practice. Now, we’re not getting into any bar fight – I can tell you that – but if we ever were to get into a bar fight and a guy takes a swing at you, he’s not going to ask you how old you are,” he said. “We don’t care how old we are. We have enough talent out here to be competitive, and we have enough talent out here to win the section. We’re not concerned with age. This group is that has 12 players who I’ve been coaching since they were U-9. They’re now U-15, U-16 players, so maybe they’re new to varsity, but they’re not new to me. There’s a lot of commonality to what we do there, and what we do here. That’s good to have. In saying all of that, the varsity experience that we have in terms of varsity minutes played is the lowest that I’ve had in a few years. This is a brand new group coming in. I have three freshmen that made the team who all play on my U-15 team, so we’re young and inexperienced. But we’re not concerned about age; we’re concerned about getting better.”
File photos from The Journal News