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BDSL championship division outlook 2017

Much like the Buffalo & District Soccer League's top flight, the championship division doesn't have a clear favorite - in fact, as many as seven of the 12 teams could be considered reasonable contenders. That's an absurd level of parity.

Five teams departed championship after last summer - due to promotion, relegation and folding - one reason this group is hard to predict. Even through two weeks and change, none of the 12 teams is without blemish.

Let's take a relatively quick look at what we expect will happen this season:

12) CELTIC HOOPS

2016 record: 3-7-1, 10th place, missed playoffs

Major losses: Eric Steinwachs, Matt Stedman, Nick Rosart

Major additions: Chad Gilson, Garrett Sengbusch (SoHo), Tommy Huebsch (Celtic United), Ricky Martinez (Sharpshooters)

Overview: A more optimistic take would be Hoops jumping the two Orchard Park teams and avoiding relegation, but last year's 10th place finisher is only slightly improved. Martinez is a nice pull from Sharpshooters, where the St. John Fisher alum scored three times and tacked on three assists last summer. His versatility, speed, enthusiasm and experience are assets.

Chad Gilson is a young striker at Fredonia State who will likely lead Hoops in scoring. Tommy Huebsch and Sengbusch bring over a decade of premier experience between them.

Standout player: Former All-Western New York pick and Buffalo State alum Jared Hulshoff continues to throw his weight around in the BDSL; he's a proven goal scorer on a team that will need them. Good luck pushing him off the ball.

Rising star: You can make a compelling case for Gilson or Fredonia mate Dan Griffin, but it's hard to overlook Connor Essenburg, who starts along the back four for Daemen College. Expect Essenburg to make a difference in Hoops' midfield, where his youth and energy will be vital to an older side.

Team Twitter: @CelticHoopsFC

BDSL premier division preview 2017

*****

11) OP ALLIANCE

2016 record: 3-7-1, ninth place, missed playoffs

Major losses: John Wellington

Major additions: Marcus D'Aguiar, Chase Eagan, Derek Frappa

Overview: OP Alliance scored three goals in their first six games last summer en route to an 0-5-1 start. Relegation looked likely. The Orchard Park-based side showed plenty of resolve over the second half of the season, winning three straight over Polonia, Celtic Hoops and Buffalo Celtic to get to safety. Unfortunately, only one of those victims returns to championship in 2017.

Alliance won't be a dismal team - they'll be competitive and will likely sneak a point or two from clubs higher up these rankings. Frappa is an Empire Development Academy player, presently the top level of boys youth soccer in Western New York, and has immediately bolstered the side.

Both D'Aguiar and Eagan are strong additions in their own ways; the former, a 2014 All-Western New York selection - might be the team's best player and likely leader, while the latter brings sorely needed scoring punch, potting 13 as a high school sophomore for the Quakers. But will they be able to score enough? We're not so sure.

Standout players: When Noah Kohl is in attendance, the Alliance are at their best. The midfielder is technical, fiery and loves to get forward. D'Aguiar's presence in the back could give Kohl even more freedom to roam into the offensive third. Outside back Zach Alamari, striker Ryan McMaster and defender Ati Mraz are all quality starters.

Rising star: Chase Eagan, just finishing his sophomore year in high school, makes his BDSL debut. He's a Buffalo Soccer Academy product (now WNY Flash, I suppose) who also competes for the Olympic Development Program. The physicality in championship will pose a problem initially, but don't be shocked to see Eagan wind up with five goals this summer.

Team Twitter: @opalliance_

*****

10) FC QUAKE [newly promoted]

2016 record: 7-2-2, third place in first division, lost in semifinals

Major losses: Andrew Reid

Major additions: Mate Tarr (BUSS), Bobby Mahany, three Hamburg High School players

Overview: Quake's yearly rise up the BDSL pyramid will likely run into a roadblock this season, as they gained promotion to championship only through the dissolution of Lakeside and Rogue. Still, advancing to the first division semifinals was a strong finish for a team that loves to be hated, at least in relation to the history of the Quake Twitter account.

Mate Tarr, an offseason addition from premier side BUSS, is a quintessential Quake player - he's big, tenacious and throws his body around. With ties to Quake in the past, Mahany is a solid, experienced defender, while the three Hamburg players - Ryan Miskell, Austin Hubert and Cullen Ingraham - inject youth into a side that needs it.

Dynamic athlete Alex Kerr, active midfielder Jake Lamos and deceptive forward Cody Walker all return to the fold.

Standout player: Ricky Mammoliti is built like a bowling ball and still has a knack for scoring goals and causing trouble. The longtime West Seneca Striker might have to stay healthy and productive for Quake to stay up, as it will be a lot to ask for Jason Iwankow to match last year's eight-goal output. Tarr gets an honorable mention.

Rising star: Ingraham was included in our offseason "10 impact youngsters" post, and for good reason. Don't be shocked if he's an All-Western New York selection for the Bulldogs this fall, and his summer with Quake should help him improve physically.

Team Twitter: @FCQuake_

10 impact youngsters added to BDSL premier, championship

*****

9) LYKAN FC

2016 record: 5-4-2, sixth place, lost in quarterfinals

Major losses: Dane Gilcrest

Major additions: Michael McGinnis, Greg Blette (FC Yemen), Tim Jordan, Matt Jones (Amherst Alliance), Ryan Couell (Rangers), Max Wittig (Catan)

Overview: It seems a little harsh to drop Lykan, a 2016 playoff team in championship, a few spots, especially knowing their recent history of grinding out close results. Given their handful of savvy additions to the roster - plus a full season of midfielder Dan Matuszak - the green and gold could very well top this prediction.

A 3-1 Tehel Cup loss to first division side Pendleton United wasn't an ideal start to the season, but it's not necessarily indicative of how the campaign will play out. Lykan's result against OP Alliance June 4 will be a big indicator of whether they're in relegation danger or closer to mid-table.

Give Lykan credit for getting better over the offseason - Jordan's return gives them width, Couell brings leadership and a lethal strike, while Wittig brings grit to the midfield.

Standout player: Bobby McGinnis might be the best goalkeeper in a division that's littered with top shot-stoppers - he single-handedly (well, he probably used both hands) kept Lykan in games throughout last year's campaign, and the arrival of 6'4 center back Michael McGinnis, his brother, and the return of longtime Lykan defender Greg Blette should help slow opposing attacks.

Rising star: Tim Jordan isn't exactly a rising star - he's 32, after all - but after four seasons away, it's easy to forget how valuable it is to have a strong left-footed wing player to serve in crosses.

Team Twitter: @LykanFC

*****

8) RANGERS

2016 record: 6-3-2, fourth place, lost in quarterfinals

Major losses: Alex Pollak, Ryan Couell (Lykan)

Major additions: Job Ayuba, Rahim Melon, Patrick Burke, Nick Fetterman, Matt Nesper (Amherst Alliance), potentially Ryan Schamber

Overview: A 5-1 smashing at the hands of East Aurora was a sour ending to a strong summer in 2016, and the lethargy seems to have carried over to this summer. Managers Matt Rakowski and Alex Visbisky bolstered their roster with a handful of under-the-radar moves, but the side has struggled to gel in an 0-2 start with no goals for.

Former Chelsea regular Patrick Burke adds experience to the squad, Matt Nesper joins his brother Jimmy on the back line, Fetterman returns from serious injury to bring toughness and versatility, while Ayuba and Melon are wild cards from Genesee Community College.

Standout player(s): Forward Dominic Parisi punished championship division defenses all last season - the Cheektowaga High School alum has a knack for finding the back of the net, although few expected the 12-goal outburst of 2016.

The Szafranek brothers, goalkeeper Bobby Weigand, midfielder Aaron Gartner, underrated defender Ryan Dobos and Medaille winger Jackson Hamilton give Rangers a robust supporting cast.

Rising star: Ayuba, a Nigerian midfielder who started 10 games for NJCAA third-place finisher GCC, could be a breakout star for Rangers, perhaps slotting in on the wing opposite Hamilton.

Team Twitter: @RangersFC_08

*****

7) NIAGARA FC

2016 record: 5-5-1, seventh place, missed playoffs

Major losses: Isaiah Barrett

Major additions: Russ Suitor (Queenston), Will Manory, Frankie Valente, Cesar Carlin, Jeremy Kraska

Overview: Niagara FC - a collection of several Lewiston-Porter High School grads - are the hardest team in championship to figure out, partly because only nine players return from last year's mid-table side. Oddly, we predict similar results.

A draw against Southtowns in the opener is a quality result, while keeping pace with BUSS for 70 minutes was hidden by the lopsided 5-0 final in Tehel Cup. But ensuing ties against Quake and Lykan suggest Niagara are competent defensively but struggle to break down foes.

Ross Suitor's surprise transfer from premier to championship is a boon to Niagara FC, and his do-everything ability will come in handy when his side needs a goal or kills off a tight game. Nick Colao, Mike Thompson, Frankie Valente and Cesar Carlin are all capable of snapping Niagara out of their scoring slump.

Standout player: Suitor. The St. Lawrence University outside back can be effective at any position - there's no doubt he's Best XI quality in this division; he's already earned championship division player of the week honors for his tally in the season-opening draw vs. Southtowns. How engaged he will be now that he's down a tier is a legitimate question, though.

Rising star: Carlin scored 37 goals last year for Wilson High School, but he'll find the second tier of the BDSL a much tougher conquest than the Niagara-Orleans League of Section VI. That doesn't mean he won't finish the summer with fewer than five goals, though.

Team Twitter: @FCNiagara

Ross Suitor, in black, vying for header, shockingly left Queenston for Niagara FC in championship. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

6) BSC INTERNATIONAL

2016 record: 1-8-2, 12th place in premier

Major losses: Lorne Maxime, Corey L'Hommedieu, Cody Niccloy

Major additions: Rick Fleck (Raiders), John Occhiuto (Raiders), Caleb Holmes (Elmwood Saints), Mike Johnson (Elmwood Saints), Mark Lawlor (Elmwood Saints), Kevin Rivera

Overview: There's plenty of turnover from the relegated premier division side, as manager Ross Karipidis has brought in youth with three former Elmwood Saints, who went defunct after one year in the BDSL, as well as some grizzled veterans.

Occhiuto's one season with Rocky Palmeiro's squad wasn't a great fit, so he returns to Inter where his five goals, six assists and creative midfield play were big reasons for the club's promotion in 2015. Maxime's departure, after scoring seven goals in four games to close 2016, will be felt, but there are still options going forward with Paul Johnson, Kirk Love, Matt Buehlmann and Fleck.

Karipidis anchors a defense that will be organized and tough to break down. Lawlor's arrival gives him assistance in the middle of the park and an extra layer defensively. But will the defense have the pace to deal with long balls over the top?

Standout player: Inter have a top five BDSL goalkeeper in Brian Arcara, the former Medaille College star who's capable of stealing games. Don't expect Inter to blow out many teams in championship, so the Orchard Park High School product must compensate for a mediocre attack.

Should Holmes' availability be better than expected, the Southern Tier Men's League superstar - who hit double figures in goals for Saints last year - could push Inter into the top four.

Rising star: Devonte Black may be the youngest player on the roster at 20 years old, but the Buffalo State outside back - a converted striker - can fill a variety of roles, especially on the flanks. His blend of quickness and pace will be a challenge for championship foes to contain.

Team Twitter: None

*****

5) BEAST CITY [newly promoted]

2016 record: 7-3-1, fourth place in first division, lost in PKs in the semifinals

Major losses: None

Major additions: Nemanja Simic, Cameron Law (BUSS), Julian Olin

Overview: This is an optimistic ranking for newly promoted side Beast, but they certainly have the talent to exceed it. Much will hinge on attendance. Losing Daemen College defender Joey Keem for the summer is a major blow, but there's an impressive amount of talent to compensate, especially going forward.

Recognizing the jump from first division to championship, Beast manager Ben Hall has built a balanced team with exciting young players and some grizzled veterans. Numbers were a concern at times last summer, and they could rear their ugly head again.

Standout player: Callahan. Liam's younger brother started eight games as a freshman at St. Lawrence, one of the premier NCAA Division III programs in the northeast. He's tenacious and hard in the tackle, but also competent technically.

Rising star: Pick one of Noah Keem, Cam Law and Nemanja Simic. Keem shredded BDSL first division last season to the tune of 13 goals, then lit up ECIC with a ridiculous 37 markers in the fall. The Daemen-bound striker is as fleet-footed as they come, and he can finish.

Law made waves in cameos during his debut season with BUSS, but he'll grab a much larger role with Beast. A fullback for the Empire Development Academy before slotting in at center midfield for Clarence as a senior, Law's athleticism, long stride and two-way ability make him an asset.

Simic, on the other hand, is a tall, do-everything No. 6 type who's hard in tackle and capable with his feet. The former University at Buffalo signing could make a big impact in his freshman season at Buffalo State.

Team Twitter: @BeastSoccerClub

Grand Island's Nemanja Simic, left, plays for Beast City. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

4) SOUTHTOWNS FPFC

2016 record: 9-0-2, first place; lost in semifinals to East Aurora

Major losses: Cody Rouse (Sharpshooters), Wade Bergum

Major additions: Elias Kubera, Colin Morrissey (Lakeside), Austin Mathis, Justin Weiskerger, Andrew McDonagh

Overview: Southtowns Family Practice FC's first loss of 2016 came at the worst possible time; the regular season champions ran into red-hot East Aurora in the semifinals and saw their dreams of promotion shattered.

Scott MacLean's side is back with a vengeance for 2017, despite the loss of top midfielder Cody Rouse to premier division's Sharpshooters. They'll replace the former Buffalo State standout with numbers, including promising young talent that fits the mold of a fiery, physical side.

Morrissey, Weiskerger and McDonagh strengthen an already robust defense; their presence will allow veterans like Steve Fox, Rob Booker and Pat Doherty to log fewer minutes.

Standout player: This is a team without one true star, but there's a good mix of talent in Phil Pinzone, the team's vocal leader, poised midfielder Steve Galante, relentless defender Will Smith and bowling-ball defender Troy Weber. SPFC are remarkably hard to play against due to their intensity and commitment to defense - Bill Littere rarely lets in soft goals and is good for a sterling save per match.

Rising star: Kubera. A newcomer to the BDSL, the 19-year-old was a relative unknown in the soccer scene, but the Bennett High School forward has injected pace and added a true scoring threat to a team that needs those qualities. He's certainly been involved in Southtowns' first three games, contributing a goal, and an assist and two yellow cards.

Team Twitter: @SouthtownsFPFC

*****

3) PANTHERS [newly promoted]

2016 record: 10-1, first place, won championship

Major losses: None

Major additions: Al Franjoine, Neil Gladstone (Alden), Tyler West, Dylan Chase

Overview: Panthers' 2016 title win - defeating young, fast Williamsville Willies despite playing down a man - was one of the gutsiest performances in recent memory. Many of the ingredients that led to Panthers' promotion are back, including Buffalo State coaching connections in Mark Howlett, Francesco Cardillo and Thomas Karanas.

Jerome and Alex Lee Yaw combined for 13 goals last season, and both are back with eyes on reaching premier. Talented veterans Kurt Schulz, Dave Tredo and Justin Bigham are invaluable, but young additions like Tyler West, who starred at Pine Valley and is headed to Elmira, and classmate Dylan Chase should be useful against more athletic opponents.

Standout player: Cardillo is Panthers' engine in the midfield - he's a former Buffalo State captain and two-time All-SUNYAC selection who prowls around the center of the park, winning 50-50s and charging forward with abandon. This is a very steady, balanced team, however, so a number of players could be recognized in this spot.

Rising star: Alex Lee Yaw is only 18, but he's torn up high school soccer at Jamestown in Section VI and then for Mercyhurst Prep in Erie, Pa. While his father, Jerome, was the more productive of the two last season, Alex has even more room to get better.

Team Twitter: @nizzit09

Panthers' Kurt Schulz brings the ball down with his chest in the 2016 first division final. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

2) WOLFPACK

2016 record: 7-4, third place; lost in semifinals

Major losses: Kevin Castine, Austin Meier

Major additions: Braden Scales (Rogue), Brian Terpin, Rob Loccisano, Brian Bartosik (Rogue)

Overview: An already solid squad improved this offseason, bolstering their midfield with FC Buffalo's Scales and adding further height and ball-winning to the back four with Terpin and Loccisano.

The ingredients are in place for Wolfpack to make the leap to premier. Pulling four points from the two youngest sides - Williamsville Willies and Beast City - is a promising development for manager Kyle Hanavan's group, which struggled against young squads (Bantu, East Aurora, Niagara FC) during their 2016 campaign.

Wolfpack prides themselves in being tough to beat, winning close games with grit and defense, while benefiting from a refined strike partnership between Kyle Weaver and Nick Cavalieri. Chris Moonan and Terpin will quell most of the threats in the middle of the park and create mismatches in the box off set pieces.

Standout player: Scales has been in brilliant form for FC Buffalo through their first two matches; the University at Buffalo alum is electric on the wing - especially serving in crosses - but can also shift inside to the No. 10 role. Holding midfielder Anthony Appiani, central player Matt McCoy, feisty Scott Berardi and tenacious Eric Russell are also standouts.

Rising star: Wolfpack are an older side, but 21-year-old Caleb Richards is a superb athlete on the wing, contributing six goals and four assists during last year's run to the semifinals. Richards also assisted on Kyle Weaver's late goal to steal a point from Willies this season.

Team Twitter: @bdslwolfpack

Wolfpack's Caleb Richards, in black, rises to attempt a header. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

1) WILLIAMSVILLE WILLIES [newly promoted]

2016 record: 7-2-2, second place in first division, lost in finals

Major losses: Jared Kish

Major additions: Justin Bonetto, Noah Smith, Nick Kurek, Pat Mathiebe

Overview: The Willies have already dug themselves a bit of a hole, drawing their first three matches of the season, but all against projected playoff teams (Inter, Wolfpack and Panthers). Their collective age is by far the youngest in the division, which typically helps rather than hinders, and their continuity is among the best, too.

The makeup of this squad is a reminder of how Williamsville North High School has become a factory of soccer players over the last five years. From Yohan Andraud to Jeffrey Bellinger to Ian Harris to Noah Bachwitz to Luke Perna, the stable is full of talent and athleticism. Attendance isn't usually a major concern, although a potential long-term injury to center midfielder Jackson Retzer has raised some worries in the camp.

Standout player: It's a toss up between Harris (Mercyhurst), Bachwitz (Ohio Northern) and Bellinger. Andraud and Brett Librock might be the best athletes, though.

Rising star: Justin Bonetto. The soon-to-be senior at Williamsville North is busy collecting hardware with the FC Buffalo Academy premier squad, and once State Cup has concluded, expect the attacking midfielder to buzz around for the Willies in their run to the postseason.

Team Twitter: @WillvileWillies

Williamsville's Yohan Andraud, in white, puts pressure on a loose ball in the BDSL first division final. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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