2015 champions: Williamsville North (Section VI, Class AA), Grand Island (Section VI, overall Class A), Iroquois (Section VI, Class A-2), East Aurora (Section VI, overall Class B), International Prep/Grover (Section VI, Class B-2), Allegany-Limestone (Section VI, Class C), Ellicottville (Section VI, Class D), Canisius (Monsignor Martin), Niagara Catholic (Monsignor Martin Small Schools), Christian Central (IAC). Canisius and East Aurora lost in their respective state finals, while Grand Island reached the state semifinals. Christian Central beat Niagara Catholic in IAC-MMA Small Schools crossover game.
2015 All-WNY first-team underclassmen: Pa Lu-11 (I-Prep/Grover), Max Montante-11 (Canisius).
2015 All-WNY Large Schools underclassmen: Sam Sutherland-11 (Clarence), Noah Keem-11 (Sweet Home), Spencer Frome-10 (St. Joe’s), Mike Mazzara-11 (Canisius), Tim Calkins-11 (Niagara-Wheatfield).
2015 All-WNY Small Schools underclassmen: Nate Nuwer-11 (Alden), Trevor Moreland-10 (Newfane), Pat Philips-10 (East Aurora), Siang Hnin Lian-11 (I-Prep/Grover), Sam Franz-11 (East Aurora).
Devilish comeback?: For a 10-year stretch, Clarence making the Section VI Class AA final was as much of a sure thing as televised football games on Thanksgiving. The Red Devils hope to get back to the way it used to be after being eliminated in the semifinals each of the past two seasons by the eventual section champion.
Third-year starter and top scorer Sam Sutherland is among nine returnees determined to lead Clarence back to the title game. Senior Austin Knorz is a very athletic 6-foot-3 midfielder with the ability to control games. Senior forward Nick Lunetta is also back in the fold, while Cam Law returns to the program and will play midfield after playing for the Empire Academy his junior season.
“He missed playing high school soccer and missed playing with his friends, getting that high school experience,” Clarence coach Mike Silverstein said.
The Red Devils may be a bit young on the back end as they look to replace a graduated defense corps led by All-WNY goalie Kyle Cunningham. The key for Clarence will be getting everyone involved and not falling into the trap of relying on individuals.
“The thing we really need the most is that chemistry we’ve had on the field for so many years,” Silverstein said. “We need to get back to that with all 11 players. … We dominated because every position on the field was solid and that’s what we need to get back to.”
East Aurora-I-Prep II?: It came down to East Aurora and I-Prep/Grover in Class B last season, as many anticipated, with EA beating the Presidents in the overall sectional final en route to making a run to the state title game.
If they meet again in the postseason, it’ll be sooner since both are part of a loaded Class B-1 bracket.
I-Prep, on paper, may have a slight edge as the five-time defending Section VI champion Blue Devils lost many players who were part of the title run – including Prep Talk Three-Sport Player of the Year and All-WNY pick Noah Thompson.
“We will see who can step in and make a difference right away,” EA coach Kevin Beale said.
Sophomore Alex Baase returns for the Blue Devils. He scored the game-winner in the state semifinal. Junior Bryce Schiltz has scored 30 goals the past two seasons, while Pat and Dan Philips are back, too. Dan posted shutouts in regionals and the state semifinals.
I-Prep has 14 returnees, including leading scorer Pa Lu – a key member of the Presidents’ Class D state championship team in 2014. I-Prep’s second- and third-leading scorers, Ahmed Hassoon and Abdullahi Hussein, also return. Coach Tony Alessi’s starting defense is back (Siang Lian, Than Win Naing, Kombi Nzoumba and Daniel Bagalwa). The only downer is the graduation loss of goalie Yasir Alaheedi.
What about Newfane: One team that could spoil both EA’s and I-Prep’s championship dreams is Newfane, which returns eight starters and 12 total from last year’s crew that lost East Aurora in the B-1 semifinals. In fact, the Panthers have lost to EA the past two seasons in the semifinals.
“Hopefully this is the year we can put it all together with all the experience,” Newfane coach Sean McDonnell said.
Fourth-year varsity player and junior Trevor Moreland returns after leading the Panthers in scoring last year (16 goals). Others leading the title defense for the reigning Niagara-Orleans League champions include junior Mateo May, senior Matt Vogt and newcomer Jarrett Gilson, a sophomore.
Motivation: Grand Island’s dream season ended with the Vikings playing perhaps their worst game of the year in the state semifinals, according to coach Frank Butcher.
That’s fueling the fire of 11 returnees, including five starters, looking to overcome the graduation of Prep Talk Player of the Year Troy Brady and Joe Kulikowski. Brady and Kulikowski combined for more than 50 goals.
Replacing them will be a challenge, but Butcher hopes an important trend continues.
“Our JV has been good for so long,” Butcher said. “I always feel we’re going to have a down season but we keep reloading.”
Senior Garrett Robinson returns after a 20-goal season. John Griffin is back after scoring thrice in six games after starting last season on junior varsity. Goalies Steve Pufpaff and Lucas Robinson (no relation to Garrett) also return after combining for a school record 14 shutouts. Senior center back Jake Gleave is a co-captain.
New leader at South: Trevor Lawler has some big shoes to will as he takes the place of longtime Williamsville South coach Pete Sugg, who stepped down from the post. Lawler, one of Sugg's former players, was an assistant with program for seven years.
“He’s been there for over 25 years so there definitely is a little pressure to keep the program going in the right direction because he had a lot of success,” said Lawler, a 2008 graduate.
Eight returning players hope to ease Lawler’s transition into his new role, including seniors Jared Burns and Joe Malinowski. It would’ve been nine but Jackson Hawk, a senior center back, suffered a season-ending knee injury while attending a soccer camp.
“I think we have a pretty good chance to make a run at the division at least,” Lawler said. “Winning sectionals is going to be tough.”
South last won sectionals in 2014.
The ‘A’ list: There are no shortage of contenders in Class A, what with Sweet Home, Iroquois and Williamsville South expected to not only battle for ECIC II but for the sectional title currently held by Grand Island.
Will this be the year the Panthers roar to the title? Sweet Home returns one of the top scholastic players in the area in Noah Keem, who has scored 29 goals in his scholastic career even though he didn’t play his sophomore year. Another to keep an eye on is 6-3 Aaron Robinson, who has 16 goals the last two years.
Coach Scott Martin hopes they are among the difference-makers that show the way for the rookies as the Panthers, a semifinalist each year since winning the sectional title in 2010, look to reach their peak during the postseason.
“ECIC II is without a doubt, hands down the most competitive division in boys soccer,” said Martin, noting that Section VI Class A-2 champion Iroquois placed fourth in ECIC II during the regular season.
The Chiefs return 15, including senior forward Nathan Sorgi, who led the team in goals. Other seniors back for Iroquois include midfielders Alex Held and Dan Madigan and defenders Owen Feely and Dan Porzio.
What’s up with Hamburg: Hamburg has won ECIC II and lost in the A-1 final the past two seasons but finds itself reloading with 50 percent of its roster filled with sophomores. Not all of them are green. All-league selection Gabe Mastrangelo, who scored nine goals last year, is one of four returning starters and enters his third season.
Williamsville East will be kind of young, according to longtime coach Jeff Librock, but the Flames do return three starters – including top scorer, senior striker Jacob Schneider. Starting goalie Mitch Polk and fellow senior Nikil Gupta anchor the defense. Although the jump to varsity is significant, Williamsville East’s junior varsity went unbeaten last year. Flames last won a sectional title in 2012.
Canisius flips script: One win can totally change the course of a season. That happened when Canisius upset then defending champion St. Joe’s during the teams’ first meeting back in 2015. That win over the then No. 1 team in the area not only bolstered the Crusaders’ confidence but proved to themselves they can beat their dreaded rival after losing six straight in the series, including all four meetings during the 2014 campaign.
Now Canisius enters the new season as the hunted. The defending Monsignor Martin champion and state Catholic finalist return 12 players from last season, including leading scorer Maxwell Montante, who tallied the game-winning goal in the MMA final against St. Joe’s, and All-Catholic Defensive Player of the Year Mike Mazzara. Striker J.P. Bobak returns after finishing in the top five in league scoring.
“Going into this season we’re in a good spot,” Canisius coach Christopher Stuff said. “We ended up beating Fordham Prep in the state semifinal and that gives the team a lot of confidence going into this year.”
St. Joe’s update: The Marauders figured to be very motivated to get even with Canisius and have six starters and 12 returnees total with long memories.
Spencer Frome returns to lead the defense and turned some heads during a run at Harvard University’s soccer academy over the summer. Returning goalie Carmine Tronolone also is receiving some Division I interest, coach Mike Thoin said. Another key returnee is defender Dom Miceli.
St. Joe’s is playing a rather challenging 15-game schedule that includes just five home games. The Marauders open at Orchard Park on Friday and also hit the road to face East Aurora, Iroquois and old friend Aquinas of Section V.
St. Francis and Nichols can’t be forgotten in Catholic play either, Thoin said. All-Catholic’s Nathan Gora and Tom Espinosa return to the fold for Frannies, who will be piloted by Patrick Hannon. He takes over for the retired Mike Smolinski.
What’s new: CSAT moves from Niagara-Orleans League to the Niagara Frontier League.
A look around the area pitch:
-- While Grand Island may be the favorite on paper to win the Niagara Frontier League, there are plenty of challengers lurking – including last year’s league runner-up Niagara-Wheatfield. N-W looks to improve on last season even though it graduated eight starters. The Falcons return starting goalkeeper Tim Calkins, a second team All-WNY pick.
Lew-Port enters the campaign determined to do very well and returns several experienced players, including its leading goal scorer Dominic Dragone. He’s led the Lancers in points each of his first two seasons.
Seniors Nick McKean, Bennett Granieri and Christian Meranto enter their third seasons with Niagara Falls, which has 10 returnees. … Lockport has second-team all-league goalie Brandon Reid, a senior, back in the fold along with classmate and center midfielder Mike Johnston. Junior all-league sweeper Garrett Yensan leads the defense. … Kenmore West expects to finish middle of the pack after bidding adieu to 17 graduates,
-- Rich Kozak takes the reins at Frontier. It’s the same Kozak who used to serve as the radio voice of Harvard Cup football back when the city schools weren’t part of the Section VI Football Federation.
He takes over a program that has won seven games the past two seasons but could surprise foes as the year progresses. Senior Drew Fiutko is captain and was first team all-league last year. Two sophomores to keep an eye on include center back Matt Clifford, a second-team all-leaguer, and center midfielder Jonah Kozak. Kozak, 15, will miss the Falcons’ first two games because he earned a spot to attend the prestigious Bayern Munich Allianz Football Camp in Munich, Germany, based on his play with his premier-league team. He left for the six-day camp Aug. 24.
-- Frontier will host its inaugural ADPRO Alumni Kick-Off Tournament Aug. 26-27. The tourney includes Eden, Cheektowaga and City Honors and is funded by alumni, including those who helped the program win three straight ECIC Championships from 1951-53. The Falcons haven’t won the division title since 1953.
Save the dates: Coaches vs. Cancer ECIC/NFL Challenge at Sweet Home, Aug. 26-27; Canisius at Orchard Park, Aug. 29; Clarence Tournament (Clarence, Nichols, I-Prep and St. Joe’s), Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Iroquois at East Aurora, Aug. 31, Clarence at Lancaster, Sept. 12; I-Prep vs. McKinley at All High Stadium, Sept. 12; Clarence at Williamsville North, Sept. 15; St. Joe’s at Canisius, Sept. 19; Oct. 10 Super Monday Tournament at Sweet Home (Nichols vs. OP, 11:30 a.m.; St. Francis vs. I-Prep, 2 p.m.; Canisius vs. East Aurora, 4:30; St. Joe’s vs. Sweet Home, 7.
Championship time: Section VI seeding meeting Oct. 15. Section VI tournament begins Oct. 17; Section finals Oct. 26-29 at TBA, Nov . 1 at TBA; State final four at Middletown High School Nov. 12-13; Monsignor Martin Tournament, TBA.
Who is going to be Prep Talk Player of the Year? Lu, Montante, Sutherland, Keem, Mastrangelo, Robinson, Tyler Curry (Lancaster).