Practice stop: Valhalla

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You remember how the Jets made headlines recently for handing out cards to all of their players that listed talking points to use with the media to avoid controversy? Well, Valhalla coach Sandro Prosperino must have gotten his hands on those, because his players refused to take the bait when I visited with them on Monday.

The Vikings are a team that many coaches in Class B are talking about as a legitimate section title contender, but you’d never know it by asking them.

“We don’t think too far ahead, because we don’t want that to bring us down,” senior midfielder Danny Vargas said. “We’re just thinking of our scrimmages right now.”

If Prosperino warned his players about keeping the interviews low key, then job well done. But no matter how much they want to downplay expectations publicly, internally they have to be feeling good about the group that they have coming back.

Valhalla reached the Class B semis last season and returns seven starters from that team — including its goalkeeper and all but one starter from the midfield up. After tasting some success, Prosperino did acknowledge that this group has the potential to be the best that he’s had in his tenure. But when asked about specific goals, he went into Bill Belichick-mode.

“We definitely set very tangible goals every preseason, and it’s something that we like to keep in-house,” he said. “But absolutely, there are definitely team goals that we have that we hope to accomplish. There are six of them that we’ve talked about specifically.”

• The Vikings had a decent regular season in 2012, but they played their best soccer when it mattered most. A big part of that was the fact that they fielded a very young team that made major strides as they got more comfortable together. Now, that continuity could be the key to their success in 2013. “Just knowing the system, more than anything,” Prosperino said of the advantage of bringing back so many starters. “When you return a lot of players, it’s always a luxury – no matter where they are on the field. But we’re going to move some parts around. As much as we bring the midfield up back, we’re definitely going to take some of those pieces from up top and move them to the back, just to make sure that we’ve got a nice, solid 11 out there on the field.”

• Practice seemed to run very smoothly, and Prosperino told me that this group’s level of focus has been tremendous. While they may not talk about it openly, they seemed to act like they know they’re on the cusp of something bigger. “I’m very happy with just how committed they are to each other, their work ethic and being committed to the culture of the program – all of that,” Prosperino said. “They know there’s more for them there if they’re willing to work for it every game.”

• While Valhalla certainly has some very talented players, it was also clear that Prosperino preaches a team-first approach and tries not to focus on an individuals. “Honestly, I feel like we all push hard for each other,” Vargas said when I asked about who the standouts on the team might be. “I don’t think one person is really going to stand out. It’s going to be a team thing, really. We’re all going to show up together.”

• Fortunately for me (and maybe unfortunately for Prosperino), I had a chance to see the Vikings play last season and saved their roster. There are a handful of impact players, but the one with the most upside is probably sophomore Kaio DaSilva. He’s a tall, athletic kid who is excellent at winning balls in the air, but he also runs extremely well for his size. He has the skills to play forward — and has played there some — but with the only real holes to fill for Valhalla on defense, it sounds like DaSilva will start the season at center back. If needed, Prosperino sounded confident that he could also use DaSilva up top as a goal-scorer. “We’ve got Kaio who is someone who started as a freshman for us and now knows the demands of a varsity season, and what it takes,” Prosperino said. “He’s someone who will definitely step up.”

• The one starting midfielder who graduated was Joseph Lovecchio, who was a very vocal leader for the Vikings in the center of the field. But juniors Yuto Tobin and Alvaro Alvarado each started last year as sophomores and played very well. Those two may be the most dangerous from this deep midfield group, but Vargas, Jose RobinsonJoel Viveros, Fernando Martinez and Steven Kopicki each received significant minutes last season. Prosperino has plenty of options, but he wouldn’t delve into exactly who would play where. You can expect to see a few of those guys rotate at forward, as the Valhalla coach stressed wanting to see a balanced offensive attack. “I’ve got guys who can score here, but if they execute and stick to the game plan – and stick to our system of play – then, for me, ideally the goals come from all over the field,” Prosperino said. “It just makes it hard to have a game plan coming from the opposition when the goals are coming from all over the field, as opposed to, here is the one guy up top who’s scoring all of the goals. Let’s man-mark him. If you shut him down, you have a good chance to win. But if you don’t shut him down, then you don’t have a good chance to win. I like the fact that about seven or eight guys can score goals on this team.”

• Of the four starters who graduated, three played on defense — Nicholas Oliveira, Robert Fiorell and Nick Tarantino. Oliveira was an all-section player, so his void will be the most difficult to fill, but DaSilva seems primed and ready. He’s penciled in as a starter on defense, and Prosperino also told me that he instructed his JV coach to play some of his best players on defense last season in anticipation of needing a few new starters back there. He also said that he won’t be shy about shuffling some of his returning midfielders to the back, if needed.

• The biggest reason that Vikings remain confident in their defense is three-year starting goalkeeper Alex Briganti. He had a very good junior season, and should be even better as a senior. “We lost our whole back line, so we’ve got a bunch of guys coming up and we feel pretty confident with them,” Briganti said. “I love them to death. They’re hard workers, so I won’t be any more important than I was last year. They’ve been stepping up and filling those shoes.”

• Being such a small school — “We’ve all been playing together since we were little kids,” Vargas said — some of the players spoke about sticking together throughout the offseason. They play with clubs or in leagues together year round, including the Lakeland summer league with AA and A powers such as Byram Hills, Mahopac and Lakeland. Prosperino sounded very pleased with the work that they’ve put in since last season, and that type of continuity could be pivotal to their success. “We played .500 soccer all year long,” Prosperino said. “We had some solid wins, and some tough losses. Once the sectionals kicked in, we definitely turned it up – winning two games, and then playing North Salem (in the semis) very tough. We ended the season very strong, and it’s definitely carried over through the winter league, spring travel team – in which I had 16 of these 19 guys on that team and we did very well out there – and then the summer league, having some solid success there against some bigger schools. We definitely feel good, but at the end of the day, we’ve got eight days before our first game. It’s about what you do on the field.”

• I’ll give the final word to Briganti, who might have given the most open answer that I received all day when I asked if the run to the semis last season has made the team hungrier this time around. While the Vikings might not want to acknowledge it, I can certainly see them as one of the top teams in Class B this season, along with Bronxville, Briarcliff, North Salem and two-time defending section champ Blind Brook. And of all of those teams, Valhalla may have the most returning talent. “Yes it does,” he said. “Every team wants to win a section title – that’s what we work for – so I just hope that what we’ve been doing here is enough to get it done.”

File photos from The Journal News

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About Author

VINCENT Z. MERCOGLIANO has been with The Journal News and LoHud.com since March 2010. He graduated from New Rochelle High School in 2005 and from Hofstra University in 2009 with a degree in broadcast journalism. He currently covers boys soccer, wrestling and baseball, while assisting with LoHud's Yankees coverage.

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