No fan of Section 1 soccer will soon forget the playoff run that Steven Hernandez had in his freshman season. Port Chester’s dazzling young talent was moved up to striker for the Rams’ first round game against Rye last year, and he never looked back. Hernandez scored seven postseason goals, five of which that put PC ahead, including the golden goal in the Class A sectional final against Byram Hills. He got to experience high school soccer at its most exciting stages, and it would have an impact that is carrying over into this season.
A hot topic among coaches remains the U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s controversial decision to expand its season and prohibit its players from playing high school soccer. It’s clear that there is an increasing trend of local players choosing to go the academy route, but Hernandez is a very notable exception. He’s not the only young player who decided to stick with his high school team, and local coaches are hoping that these examples send a message to those players who face this same decision in coming years. For today’s boys soccer preview that appeared in The Journal News, I examined the issue and came up with a few basic conclusions (click here to read my full story):
1. More players are choosing the academy — The benefits of playing with the U.S. Soccer Academy have been pretty clearly laid out at this point. The level of competition is better, and most importantly, players will get more exposure to college coaches. It simply makes more sense for a college scout to attend an academy game that features several players who they might be interested in, as opposed to a high school game that might feature just one or two. Those are the selling points for academy coaches, and it seems to be working. We’ve seen some guys who were top players in Section 1 last season — such as White Plains’ Shiloh Alexander and Clarkstown South’s Nick Laurent — make the switch to the academy this year. FC Westchester alone has about 30 local players spread out between its three age groups.
2. Expect more parity — With more teams losing more players, many top teams are being stripped of some of their high-end talent. For the schools that seem to have been hit the hardest by the academy, such as White Plains, Mamaroneck and Byram Hills, the result will be less dominating products on the field. That certainly changes the section title picture and makes it more unpredictable. Think of it like the Yankees suddenly being told that they have to play this season without Robinson Cano. And while I think that this opens things up for a few unexpected teams to make some noise, it’s also worth noting that some teams are hit harder by the academy than others. Perennial powers such as Arlington and Port Chester have managed to starve off the academy teams, which gives them a distinct advantage.
3. “The rules have changed” — As I spoke with high school coaches throughout the section this offseason, many of them noted that the academy rule has changed their job descriptions. When they know that they have talented players coming up, their main concern becomes keeping them with the program. “I feel like it’s every day, you’re thinking about it: ‘What is he going to do? What are the younger players going to do?’ ” Lakeland coach Tim Hourahan said. “As more and more academies pop up in the area, and the age groups are no longer just 17 and 18, you’re losing guys who never get to step on this turf field, or get to experience what a high school practice is like. You have to sell kids on what they’ve never seen, so yeah, it’s different… The rules have changed.” Hourahan likened it to being a college coach who has to sell a kid on his program, which seems to be a slippery slope. The days of knowing that you’ll have your top players until they graduate are over.
The second part of our boys soccer preview was to identify the top teams and players to watch. I’ll have more coming in the next week, including league title predictions, a class-by-class section title picture breakdown and a look at which players are most likely to be the top strikers in the section this season.
Teams to watch
North Rockland: The Red Raiders went on a tremendous run to reach the section final in coach Chris Dwyer’s first year at the helm, but duplicating that success will be difficult with just five returning varsity players.
Port Chester: After a nearly winning a state championship in Class A last season, the highly skilled Rams are bumping up a class to shake up the section title picture.
Others to watch: Mahopac, Mamaroneck, Ossining, Scarsdale, White Plains
Byram Hills: With the team (Port Chester) that knocked them out in each of the past two seasons moving up to Class AA, the Bobcats look like the favorite to capture their first section title since 2010.
Pelham: Perhaps no team in the class brings back as many key starters as the Pelicans, who should compete for a section title with a well-rounded roster.
Others to watch: Edgemont, Keio, Lakeland, Nyack, Somers
Blind Brook: The two-time defending Class B champs lose The Journal News’ reigning Westchester/Putnam player of the year in goalkeeper Ben Seguljic, but the Trojans have proved they should never be counted out.
Others to watch: Briarcliff, Bronxville, North Salem, Solomon Schechter, Valhalla
Players to watch
Mike Bernardi, Mahopac: While many of the top goalies from last season have graduated, the junior may be the next in the line of great Section 1 keepers.
Jon Cabeca, Briarcliff: The senior striker will look to lead the Bears to a Class B section title after notching 19 goals and 10 assists last season.
Chris Coughlan, Pearl River: One of the top defenders in the section will be making the transition to the midfield for his senior season to spark an offense that has been hit hard by graduation.
Chris Cruz, Yonkers: The senior midfielder had more combined goals and assists than any player in Section 1 last season, finishing with 21 goals and 23 assists.
Alex Gaujean, Scarsdale: One of the most versatile players in the area, the senior will be moved all over the field to maximize his touches and utilize his wide skill set.
Steven Hernandez, Port Chester: After bursting onto the scene as a freshman with seven postseason goals, including five that put the Rams ahead, the gifted striker won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season.
Aidan Murray, Pelham: Arguably no striker in the section features such a combination of speed, size and finishing ability as the Amherst College-bound senior, who had 12 goals and eight assists last season.
Ben Ovetsky, Irvington: The Binghamton-bound senior is a candidate to lead the section in goals this year after scoring 20 with five assists in 2012.
Tom Young, Edgemont: The Williams College-bound senior had 19 goals and 16 assists last year and will look to lead an experienced Panthers team that has been bumped up from Class B to Class A.
Derlis Zayas, White Plains: One of the most well-rounded midfielders in the area, the senior will set the tone defensively while looking to improve on his total of five goals and five assists from last year.