With each passing postseason win, it’s becoming more difficult for Byram Hills coach Matty Allen to hold back the tears.
The long-time leader of the Bobcats had won four section titles and one state championship prior to this season, but something about this run to the Class A state final four has stirred up new emotions.
“I’ll be honest, I think in each one of those years, because we were the top seed, it was more a relief when we won those games,” Allen said. “It was because we expected to be there. We had very lofty goals, and we still do. But this has been different because I’ve been so taken back from how we’ve won these games. We’ve come from behind, we were 5-5 (midway through the season), and to watch this development has been an emotional thing.”
Byram will enter Saturday’s state semifinal against Section 5 champ Greece Athena as the improbable winners of 12 straight.
It would have been considered a pie-in-the-sky prediction in the preseason when the Bobcats were trying to figure out how to recover from the graduation of several starters. To make matters worse, no team in Section 1 was hit as hard by U.S. Academy teams, which claimed seven potential Byram players.
But perhaps the biggest detriment to the season came when the Bobcats were forced to forfeit their season-opener after team rules were violated during an unapproved team gathering on school property.
“I honestly think that if it wasn’t for that incident, we wouldn’t have been as successful. I think it forced them to look at themselves and reassess how meaningful this season was to them,” Allen said. “That incident made me take on more of a fatherly or brotherly role. I’ve looked after these guys a lot more personally than I ever have outside of the realm of soccer.”
With its off the field reputation in jeopardy and no true standout talent on the field, Byram started slow and found itself at .500 with just six regular season games to play.
But the turning point came on Oct. 11 when the Bobcats traveled to Long Island to play Jericho. They dismantled the three-time defending Class A state champion with a 3-0 win and haven’t lost a game since.
“Not to be cocky, but we knew we had the talent,” senior midfielder Cole Tannor said. “We got the guys together early on in the season and I think it was all of the captains – me, Yianni (Lambos), Bennett (Kramer) and Payton (Levine) – and we knew what our goals were, and that was to win our last game. We weren’t joking around about it. We knew we could do it. We’re here now, and it’s become a real goal, and we have two games left. Everyone is feeling it and is ready to go.”
One of the keys to Byram’s late season success was Kramer, who caught fire as a goal-scorer in the final weeks leading up to the playoffs. When he went down with a hamstring injury in the quarterfinals against Pelham, the Bobcats were once again up against the odds.
But once again, they proved that if this team has anything, it’s the ability to adjust on the fly – and depth.
“One of the most obvious differences I’ve seen in this season compared to the past several years is the production of goal-scoring,” Levine said. “Byram has always been known for having the Greg Shaheens, the Jon Berrys and the David Lachs—essentially one guy who will continuously put the ball in the net. This year, however, goals are coming from all over the place.”
Brandon Drossman went from backup defender to playoff star, scoring the decisive goal in three consecutive games while filling in at forward for Kramer. Tannor, Ben Weinstein and Matt Berger have also scored key goals, as Allen has routinely used 20 players per game.
“When we started, the only guys that are currently in the same spot would be Bennett Kramer, Cole Tannor, Ryan Blum and (goalkeeper) Matt Groll. Those are the four guys who are playing the same positions that they were on Day One. Everyone else has been moved around,” Allen said.
“We’ve become so interchangeable. We’re not robotic.”
Kramer returned to the lineup for regional play last week and showed signs of regaining his form when he hit two posts in the first half against Vestal, which is a good sign for the Bobcats.
“I really tried playing in the Yorktown game (section final), I tried playing in the Eastchester game, but I have trust in my teammates to get the win for me, and they did,” Kramer said. “To be back in my senior year, I’m so happy and lucky to be back. I’m trying to make the most of all of my minutes.”
Prior to this season, Byram hadn’t won a section title since 2010 and its only state title under Allen came in 2007, which means that none of its current players had achieved this level of success.
The pressure to live up to those powerhouse teams of years’ past was overwhelming at times, but with its recent team-oriented approach, these 2014 Bobcats realize that they’re creating their own legacy.
“The past few weeks has been a journey that I’ll never forget,” Levine said. “All of us seniors have been playing soccer together since at least first grade, and the bonding we have made with the realization that this year is our final chance to play together is part of what makes us so dangerous as a unit.
“Many of us used to make the trips up to Oneonta, coming home with aspirations of one day being able to wear the jerseys of the Byram stars that came before us. The past few years, there has been a large focus on living up to the expectations of what has been done before us, and a common phrase we would hear in the locker room leading up to a sectional game was this idea that, ‘We are standing on the shoulders of giants.’ This year, with what we have accomplished thus far, we have been able to stray away from the idea that we are playing to the expectations set by our alumni and instead have come to the understanding that we ourselves are giants.”
I’ll be making the trip to Middletown tomorrow for Byram’s state semifinal, so follow me on Twitter @vzmercogliano for live updates and full coverage. Here’s a game preview capsule that I put together to give you some background information on the Bobcats’ opponent, Greece Athena:
Class A state semifinal
Byram Hills (17-5) vs. Section 5’s Greece Athena (14-6-1)
When: Saturday, 11:15 a.m.
Where: Faller Field at Middletown HS
Key players: Byram Hills – Ryan Blum, Sr., MF; Bennett Kramer, Sr., F; Payton Levine, Sr., D; Cole Tannor, Sr., MF; Ross Weinfeld, Sr., D. Greece Athena – Ryan Lindeman, Soph., F; Nick Messmer, Sr., D; Zach Mirguet, Sr., D; RJ Nichol, Sr., MF; Jason Siracuse, Sr., F.
Coach speak: “The key is going to be maintaining our composure defensively in those moments when they apply a lot of pressure. They have a few players that can score instead of a go-to player, which means we will have to play exceptional team defense. From that, we will need to transition fast on that big Middletown turf field and get Greece Athena to think defensively, rather than offensively.” – Byram Hills coach Matty Allen
Outlook: At the midway point of the season, both teams sat at 5-5, but each has caught fire since. Byram went onto win its fifth sectional title in nine years, while Greece Athena captured its first Section 5 title in 30 years. The Trojans have gotten this far thanks to a high-powered offense while the Bobcats hang their hats on defense, so something has to give. As Allen points out, Greece Athena likes to rotate a lot of forwards. Siracuse leads the team with 15 goals, but Lindeman is an emerging sophomore who is considered to be very dangerous. Eight players on the team have scored at least three goals. Byram’s back line will have its hands full, but they have five seniors in Levine, Weinfeld, Lambos, Andrew Cohen and Ryan Starker who may be up to the challenge. Allen has never been shy about putting some of his best players on defense, and that has been the case once again this season. Like Greece Athena, the Bobcats have also been difficult to defend because they don’t force the ball to any one player. Kramer was their top forward during the regular season, but they’ve gotten to this point without a postseason goal from him. Weinstein, Drossman and Berger have also proven that they’re capable of playing well up top, plus Byram has midfielders who can score. That balance could be the key to a trip to the state championship game.
Up next: The winner will play the winner of East Hampton (Section 11) and Jamesville-Dewitt (Section 3) in the state championship game at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Middletown.
File photos from The Journal News