It’s almost as if there’s something in the water in Clarence these days that produces excellent girls soccer players.
The Red Devils squad is simply loaded with talent – enough to keep college recruiters occupied for much of autumn. Coach Tom Furminger says it’s unusual to have several players on the same high school that will play Division I soccer in college.
“Sydney Cerza is going to St. Bonaventure,” he said. “Shannon Carr is going to Valparaiso. Hannah Spitzer is going to Duquesne. Riley Bowers is going to Ohio State. Amanda Burns is going to West Virginia. Anna Davies is getting interest from D-1 schools for sure. There are other kids that will play D-III.”
It’s a team that had a memorable run in 2014. Clarence went undefeated through the regular season and advanced through the sectionals. It even pushed aside the jinx facing AA teams in the Far West Regionals, becoming the first Section VI team in the class to advance to the Final Four, with a win over Webster Thomas.
There the dreams of a perfect season ended, with a 1-0 loss to Massapequa in the state semifinals. But much of the team’s nucleus is back.
“On paper, that’s always nice,” Furminger said. “This is my third year with the varsity, and we’ve always had a corps of the majority of starters coming back. But now most of those kids are seniors. So it’s an older, junior/senior team as opposed to the last couple of years when we’ve had a lot of freshmen and sophomores that were major contributors. You’re always looking ahead to the next year.”
If it’s not the water quality that’s responsible for the boatload of talent in Clarence, there must be something else. Indeed, many girls have been kicking soccer balls since they got out of playpens.
“I started from kindergarten,” co-captain Molly Barton said. “I’ve been playing soccer with some of these people from the beginning. It definitely helps. We all know our style of play.”
Clarence has a “First Touch” program for players who are 4 and 5 years old. Soon those kids start playing indoors in the winter, and work their way into a house league that involves a total of 1,200 players.
“You get that many kids, and some go into travel programs,” Furminger said. “It’s been one of the top travel programs in Western New York. After that, the kids that are really determined and really into it move on to one of the premier programs. They are involved in U.S. soccer regional pools. The parents take them there. What I do is very minor compared to all the stuff that has come before me.”
Carr’s story is typical: “I’ve been playing competitive soccer since I was in elementary school. I play at the Western New York Flash Academy, and on a team in Cleveland. I’m on the Region I team. I’ve been on Syd’s team a lot of years, and Molly’s team. We work together well.”
The centerpiece of the team is Cerza, the Buffalo News’ Prep Talk Player of the Year and a first-team all-state selection last year. The senior scored 30 goals, and has led Clarence in scoring for the last four years.
“She’s a prime athlete – I can put her anywhere on the field and she’ll be effective,” Furminger said. “Tactically, she understands the game. She knows where she needs to run. I think she steps up when we need her. … She has it all, and she works her rear end off. She leaves our practices, and she’ll go for personal training and a workout. She deserves everything she’s gotten.”
“She (Cerza) is an asset to any team,” said Barton, who calls Cerza one of her best friends. “She’s a great leader. She’s always telling us to get the job done.”
Cerza already has plenty of individual glories in her high school career. She’s more interested in taking those last steps toward a state title this time.
“My goal this year is different,” she said. “My achievements last year were great, but I want to achieve more as a team.”
Cerza’s skills are nicely complemented by Carr.
“Shannon is a senior who was second-team all-state as a midfielder,” Furminger said. “I think if it weren’t for Shannon, Syd wouldn’t have half her goals. Shannon has served half the balls off corner kicks that Syd finished. You have to play both ways at the midfield spot, and she got some clutch goals.”
Then there’s Spitzer, a third returning member from the all-Western New York team of 2014.
“Spitz was just a sophomore last year,” Furminger said. “She is a lockdown defender. Throughout our run last year, we put her on the other team’s best forward. Against Webster Thomas, she just shut the other kid down. The other kid just couldn’t breathe. She got frustrated and whacked her a couple of times. But Spitz has a cool head. She took the fouls.”
If that weren’t enough, Bowers, a junior, returns to the squad after taking time off from scholastic competition.
“She played as an eighth- and ninth-grader here,” Furminger said. “The way US Soccer works, there are development camps that you can be invited to. I think she went to a camp in Florida in October. The timing didn’t really jive with our team.
“Technically, she’s a wonder, the way she can strike the ball with both feet. … Her decisions and speed of play are exceptional. It’s unbelievable to get her back.”
Talk of an undefeated season this year didn’t last long. Baldwinsville made the drive from suburban Syracuse to beat the Red Devils, 2-1, at the start of the season. It was one of those games that could have gone either way, but it certainly represented a good wake-up call.
“Baldwinsville was a blessing in disguise,” Cerza said. “It put us back in our place, and showed us that if we want to do what we want to do, we’ll really have to work. We can’t let any teams get in our way.”
But there have been no hiccups since that loss, as Clarence has piled up some convincing wins over local competition. There are tough games looming, including a Wednesday afternoon date with Lancaster, and no one is looking too far into the future.
“A state championship would be awesome,” Cerza said. “Everyone on the team really wants it. I think if we keep working hard, we definitely can do it. But we try to put it aside. Our main goal is to win our league. Once we get in the sectionals, the goal will be to win each game. We just keeping building from there.”
“We’re excited,” Burns added. “We think we can go farther this year, because we think we have the talent.”