Like many good childhood friendships, Frank Cotroneo and Troy Brady first met while playing tee ball.
With spacious Veteran's Park in Grand Island the site of a robust youth baseball league, the two 4-year-old athletes were initially drawn to the diamond rather than the pitch.
Connected by Cotroneo's cousin, already a member of the team and friends with Brady, the two blossomed as leaders on PeeWee and Little League travel teams - Frank showing his range at shortstop and Troy roaming center field.
As the two reached their teenage years, Brady wielded a better bat than his friend, although Cotroneo counters that his glove was superior.
"Troy could have gone pretty far with baseball if he didn't play soccer," Cotroneo admitted.
"[Baseball] was No. 1 for me at the time," Brady recollected. "We were a pretty good baseball town when we were little."
Although the athletic script has evolved over the last 15 years, the bond of friendship between the two has grown exponentially stronger.
At 4 p.m. Sept. 27 at Demske Sports Complex, Canisius men's soccer and sophomore winger Troy Brady will welcome the visiting Siena Saints, whose red-shirt freshman right back just happens to be Frank Cotroneo.
The match will be the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opener for both teams, as well as the first time that Brady and Cotroneo have ever competed against each other in a competitive game.
Cotroneo spent the early portion of his life in North Buffalo, close to where his father - who goes by the same name - taught and coached girls soccer at Nardin Academy. In seventh grade, the Cotroneo family relocated to Grand Island - known colloquially as "The Island" - placing him much closer to Brady.
The friendship between Cotroneo and Brady blossomed even more as freshmen in high school, where the two were forced to play junior varsity soccer; Grand Island would not approve first-year high school players to compete at the varsity level.
It wasn't really fair, then, when Brady and Cotroneo paired in the central midfield for the JV Vikings. Their productivity was staggering, but one funny moment emblematic of their friendship sticks out to the pair.
"It was against Kenmore West," Cotroneo remembered, "and we were both standing over a free kick. I told [Troy] that he could take it, and then he said that I could. I told him that I was going to hit it into the top corner. It went wide by like 15 yards. I remember him just looking at me and laughing."
Sports were a blessing to connect two guys who will admit they're more shy than bold, with Cotroneo a little less reserved than Brady.
"He's a comical, goofy guy, always putting a smile on someone else's face," said Brady of Cotroneo's off-the-field personality, in contrast to the Saint's intensity and no-nonsense attitude on the field.
"Once you get to know [Troy], it's like you've known him for years," said Cotroneo.
Their similar drive united them further. Both wanted to play soccer in college and, ideally, after; both were eager to put in the work.
When Brady struggled through a rough patch in his youth - he declined to discuss specifics in our interview - Cotroneo and his family were more than welcoming.
"He’s family," Cotroneo said of his best friend. "My parents consider him family. He's more of a brother to me than a friend. He was always welcomed at my home; my parents wanted to have him live at home with us for a while, but it didn't quite work out. But we were always looking out for him, wanting what was best for him."
Once Cotroneo and Brady chose to pursue soccer over baseball, their training sessions at Veteran's Park became something of local legend. Biking from opposite sides of The Island, the two converged on "Vets" - sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of them - for intense, soccer-specific workouts.
From technical touches to the "D Drill" - where a pass is played into the half-circle atop the 18, and the attacking player must settle the ball within that small area and finish - the pair were able to sharpen their fundamentals when most other players would prefer small-sided games.
"It was all about repetition," Brady reflected.
Position drills - where Cotroneo, a winger, would dribble up the right wing and serve a cross in to Brady, a forward or attacking midfielder - were next, followed by a running component.
Before college, the two would push themselves to complete two miles in 12 minutes, the general requirement of a college soccer fitness test in the preseason.
"[The training] was pretty special because if it wasn't for Frank I wouldn't be where I am now," Brady said. "Whenever I would train alone I'd get nothing done - sometimes I couldn't get people to go out - but I could always count on Frankie."
Following the workouts, the two rewarded themselves with trips to fine Grand Island establishments Jim's Steak Out, Mighty Taco or Wendy's. "We'd usually go for the 4 for $4 at Wendy's," Brady said with a chuckle.
CHOOSING DIFFERENT ROUTES
These training sessions on weekends and during the summers were special also because of how infrequently the two played together, given their divergent paths in Western New York youth soccer.
Cotroneo, keen on learning from top-tier coaches and playing at the highest level, was selected to the Empire United Development Academy in Rochester, which made him ineligible to compete for Grand Island in his sophomore through senior years.
Although Cotroneo's peers and casual Section 6 soccer fans might be unfamiliar with him because he never played a minute of varsity soccer, the trade-off was the chance to play against youth sides from Major League Soccer's New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact instead of CSAT, Niagara Falls and Niagara-Wheatfield.
Brady, on the other hand - despite interest from the DA brass - opted to suit up for Frank Butcher's Vikings to play with his classmates. Brady wasn't totally bereft of quality competition, though; he still played club for Empire United Buffalo, a step down from the academy, competing in the Thruway League and in major tournaments over the summer.
While Cotroneo's Development Academy team saw marginal success, Brady's Grand Island teams qualified for two consecutive New York State tournaments, with the Vikings losing in the semifinals his junior year and in a heartbreaking final in his senior season. Most high school players are lucky to reach one state tournament, much less two.
"I'm pretty happy with my decision [to not play DA]," reflected Brady, who was honored as the Prep Talk Player of the Year following his senior season. "There's always the negatives and positives to look at it from. I loved playing with my high school teammates, and I loved my club team."
When he had the opportunity, Cotroneo would watch Brady compete for Grand Island. "I went to support him more than to support the team, in all honesty," he said.
"It was kind of difficult because we also had different [class] schedules at the time," Brady remembered. "It's not that we drifted apart, but he was traveling to Rochester at least three times each week, and I had school soccer and my Empire Buffalo team.
"I always tried to get him to play high school with me," laughs Brady now, even though Cotroneo never budged.
"We still found time to train together," Cotroneo countered. "It was definitely to get better, but also to see each other."
THROUGH BAD TIMES
Smooth sailing on the soccer field ended abruptly for both Cotroneo and Brady, as each suffered a major setback within three months of each other. The former was diagnosed with mononucleosis after leaving the Empire DA to train with FC Buffalo the summer before his freshman season at Villanova, which left Cotroneo on the periphery in Philadelphia.
Brady kept in close contact with Cotroneo during the unfortunate start to his college career, knowing how vulnerable the latter would be in such a situation.
"[Frank] did get screwed over with mono," Brady remarked. "Frank is an emotional guy; things get to his head pretty easily. Me and his family helped him get his mind off things."
Cotroneo saw time in just two matches, accumulating no stats as a member of the Wildcats.
"It sucked watching him at Villanova, whether it was because of a situation with his coach, or not getting in the [starting] XI or even on the field against some teams," Brady added. "I think Frank deserves much more than that."
For Brady, disaster struck unexpectedly against Bucknell - coincidentally the match in which he scored his first collegiate goal. His knee buckled and gave way without contact - the telltale signs of the dreaded torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee.
Brady would hop around on the sideline for a few more games to support the Griffs, but he was eventually shut down for surgery.
Especially considering his early impact as a freshman, the eight-to-12-month recovery devastated Brady, at least initially. Cotroneo spoke with the injured winger daily, offering encouragement while grappling with the unfairness that had befallen his friend.
"I was very upset – he was doing great in his freshman year, scoring goals, playing," Cotroneo recollected. "That's all you can ask for as a freshman.
"When he wasn’t able to get his red-shirt – he played 13 too many seconds - that really aggravated me," said Cotroneo. "He'd worked so hard – and he didn’t play a lot that season [because of the injury], and now he won't be able to play four full years."
Brady remains grateful for Cotroneo's friendship during that tough period.
"He always pushed me during my recovery, especially during the beginning stages, telling me there'd be better days ahead."
STATE CUP CHAMPIONS
Better days were ahead. Brady committed hard to rehabbing his knee, while Cotroneo eyed a fresh start away from 'Nova. The latter considered the University at Buffalo before the program was eliminated, then signed late with Siena College, a liberal arts school in Albany, NY, that competes in the same conference as Canisius.
Preceding the college season, Brady and Cotroneo were afforded one more chance to be teammates. Luciano Gallo's Empire United Buffalo U-20 side this past summer formed a stacked roster, adding six Development Academy alums from Rochester and Syracuse.
While the first task was winning State Cup, the deep, gifted side - which included the two Grand Island High School graduates - had their eyes on the Region I championships.
The Empire team won State Cup with relative ease, finishing 2-0-1, punctuating the run with a 6-2 drubbing of Rochester Futbol Club.
Although Brady was in the latter stages of his rehab from knee surgery - which limited his minutes and impact - the two suited up together again in regionals, where Empire came within a 90th-minute goal of beating the eventual champions, Penn Fusion 98. Those were the only two goals the Fusion permitted in the five games.
While Empire failed to qualify for the knockout round of regionals, the chance for the two best friends to play together one last time was meaningful.
"It was very special," Brady said of the experience. "We never really played together after our freshman year of high school."
While their friendship buoyed them through dark freshman seasons, both players have surged as sophomores.
Brady reclaimed his starting spot from the get-go, rifled home the game-winner against Robert Morris and poached two more against Virginia Military Institute, earning him MAAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
His fortunes got even better, too, as his magical individual effort beat Big Ten foe Rutgers, which grabbed the attention of Siena's head coach, Cesar Markovic.
“We were just getting on the bus from one of our games at Hartwick – not one of our better ones, we lost – and the first thing coach said was, 'Canisius just beat Rutgers in OT,'" Cotroneo remembered. "I texted [Brady] right away; I hoped that if Canisius won, at least Troy had scored the goal. He had, and he sent me video of it."
— Canisius Mens Soccer (@GriffsSoccer) September 20, 2017
Despite Brady's brilliant run of form, the former WNY Player of the Year hasn't lost sight of his best friend's accomplishments five hours east.
"I watched them play California," said Brady, "and Frank is so good at picking out forwards. He put it on the forward's foot a few times and they just couldn't finish. He's been pretty deadly at right back, both going forward and defensively."
Cotroneo has started all eight matches on the Saints' back line, ranking third on Siena in minutes played, a far cry from his usage while at Villanova.
"It's been one hell of a ride," Brady said in describing Cotroneo's last year. "It was tough for him to find a new school because [his transfer] was so last-minute. I'm sad he didn't come over to Canisius with us, but he was happy - Siena felt like home, and I knew he always wanted to get out of Buffalo."
A HEAD TO HEAD FOR THE AGES
The stage is set for a date that's been talked about for months, and the banter is flying. Adding to the intrigue is the possibility that Brady could line up as a left winger, putting him in prime position to jockey with Siena's right back - Frank Cotroneo.
"I expect it to be a hard-fought battle with love," said Brady in regard to the possible individual match-up. "It will be amazing - when we both step on the field we know what we're trying to do whether we're playing together and against each other."
Pushing each competitor on what the match-up means personally, both lightened their tone a bit.
"If I do play on the left on Wednesday, it's going to make him play extra hard and try to shut me down more," Brady noted. "Maybe it'll give him a laugh if I embarrass him."
When Brady initiated the daily pre-match banter via text, Cotroneo readied his retort.
"Why, are you going to two-foot tackle me?" he posed. "I’m just going to shut you down."
“I’ll give him a hug and a kiss on the head, and then it’s time to fight for 90-110 minutes," Cotroneo concluded in our interview. "Then we're back to being brothers again.
"That’s the match-up I dream about. It's the most excited I’ve ever been for a game. To defend your best friend is a dream come true."