It's common for parents and fans to wonder why a certain player isn't seeing big minutes. In many cases, coaches' reasons extend far beyond the player's ability on the soccer field.
In Robert Williamson's first two seasons at Buffalo State, the defender started just 15 of 38 games, appearing in 26 altogether, although many in spot duty. Entering college, the Fishkill, NY, recruit might have been the team's most physically gifted member of the back four, but other factors prevented him from making his presence felt.
"Robert came in as a very immature young boy," described Bengals head coach Mark Howlett, flatly. "And, we spoke a lot over [this past] summer and we had a lot happen, and we really wanted to give him more responsibility, and we've seen the growth in him year after year, but he was still someone I couldn't fully rely on."
The issues were mostly based on mental toughness. Opposing forwards would do their best to get under Williamson's skin, and the Bengal would let their cagey tactics rattle him.
"My freshman year - I needed to do a little bit of growing up," Williamson agreed. "I kind of let my emotions dictate how I played, since then coach has talked to me a lot, telling me to keep my head because he knows my ability is there."
With 2016 starters Drew Braun and Daniel Aguilar Lobo no longer with the program, Howlett's trust in Williamson as a defensive leader has grown with each steady effort, and his faith in the junior's willingness to mature was evident in the Bengals' 2-1 comeback win over Medaille earlier this season in non-conference play.
Despite his role on the back line, Williamson assisted on Luke Pavone's tying goal and scored the winner, nodding in a set piece at the back post.
"In big games like [against Medaille], especially in the first half when the chips are down, with people pushing him, before [Williamson] would have crumbled," Howlett said following that match.
"Now he stands tall and scores the winning goal. The best part about this job is that - the transformation of these young men into being able to perform like that from where they came from is just incredible."
In addition to Williamson's emergence as one of the SUNYAC's best defenders, here are nine other things to know about Buffalo State men's soccer before the team faces Fredonia State at 1 p.m. Sept. 30 in the annual Battle by the Lake. (Last year's meeting was an absolute barn burner).
2) PAVONE'S LAST STAND: Red-shirt senior Luke Pavone's college soccer career has taken a hit from a non-stop series of injuries since he was the Bengals' lone representative on the 2015 All-SUNYAC team.
Broken toes ended the former UMass midfielder's senior campaign not long after it started, forcing Pavone to sit and watch his team's playoff run from the sidelines. Various leg injuries kept the Rochester native out of action in the spring and summer, too, leaving his availability for this fall in question.
The Bengals' talisman had already overcome his share of adversity before the avalanche of injuries, and his longstanding relationship with Howlett has the makings of a script that deserves a special conclusion. The team leader in goals (four) and assists (three), Pavone looks like a lively leader capable of propelling Buffalo State deep into the playoffs.
3) APPRECIATING WASSON: We've written at length about Sammy Wasson's technical brilliance since his time at Clarence High School. The ball seems to stick to his feet, and his quick turns to elude defenders are incredibly smooth. It's rare that he loses the ball in possession, and he's as unselfish as they come.
Buffalo State was reliant on their captain playing heavy minutes last fall, so Howlett has intentionally limited Wasson's usage after a knee injury forced him to miss last postseason. There's no doubt the Bengals are a better team with Wasson in control, but his freshness for big matches and the postseason is of paramount importance.
The Coyer Field turf is notoriously unforgiving, so it will be interesting to see how much Wasson features at home.
4) DEALING WITH DEPARTURES: Buffalo State knew it would lose starters Lobo and Banahene to graduation after last season, but it was much harder to predict the departures of three other regulars.
All-SUNYAC pick Bass Sarr chose to take a full scholarship from NCAA Division I Cal-State Fullerton a month before the season, while both Tristan Myers and Drew Braun are no longer with the team for unspecified reasons. Drew Johnson, a starting winger from 2016, has not seen action due to injury.
The Bengals haven't skipped too much of a beat, although Sarr's decision has hindered the side's offensive output. Transfers Josh Beshaw (St. Bonaventure), Ali Shawish (Daemen College) and Sofiane Hamadi (Genesee Community College) all brought starting-caliber talent, while Howlett's freshman class - pulled heavily from his own Global Premier Soccer U-18 squad, understood the coach's expectations enough to contribute out of the gate.
5) LEARNING FROM HOUGHTON: For college coaches, there's hope that hard lessons can be learned during non-conference play so their teams can be hardened during the truly meaningful matches. For Buffalo State, an early season 2-0 loss to Houghton College was a wake-up call.
"It's our third game into the season and we have an entitled attitude about us," Howlett recalled. "[We] just thought teams were going to come and roll over because we've had two good years. That's not what we've been building. We're built on the foundation of hard work, having the will to win and we'll grind.
"We had a talk about that after Houghton and it was a massive lesson. I'm so thankful that happened, otherwise Tuesday we would have played U of R [Rochester] and it would have been a lot worse."
6) UNHERALDED PLAYERS: Pavone, Wasson and now Williamson are the standouts, but Buffalo State boasts loads of underrated performers. Bucky Benyehuda brings leadership and tenacity to the middle of the park; Victor Powell is a reliable holding midfielder with bite; pacy Zach Caruso and Devonte Black are assets at fullback; and Maissa Dieye and Sofiane Hamadi possess the work rate that Howlett demands from his forwards.
7) MAJOR HOME SUNYAC MATCHES: Below are a few dates to circle on your soccer calendar after the Battle by the Lake:
*3 p.m. Oct. 6 vs. Oswego, a program suddenly on the upswing
*4 p.m. Oct. 7 vs. Cortland, which has knocked BSC out of the playoffs the last two years
*3 p.m. Oct. 20 vs. Oneonta, the perennial SUNYAC favorite
Here's a link to the Bengals' full schedule.
8) FRIGHTENING DEPTH: The Bengals' roster is so deep that it's actually a little worrying. How do you keep so many talented players happy with their roles? Howlett has been masterful at getting his players, even those on the bench, to buy in, but 2017 will be his biggest challenge yet.
Beshaw is approaching full health for the first time this season, while Niagara University transfer Brandon Galanti was more of a factor last year than the present. Talented freshmen Saleman Salim, Nemo Simic, Jake Gleave and Tony Roncone must bide their time, knowing bigger roles are in their future - but not the present.
While the depth allows Howlett to rest players, manage injuries and confront the back-to-back games on the schedule, it can also foster discontent. But Williamson remains confident that the team's togetherness will alleviate any potential problems.
"We have a lot of depth and everyone trusts in one another, whether you're playing 90 minutes, 30 or a minute, we know every single person is going to come on and do the job that needs to be done at that part of the game," the defender said.
9) QUESTION MARKS: Graduated goalkeeper William Banahene proved his mettle in the National Premier Soccer League this past summer, a reminder of how outstanding the Niagara University transfer was for the Bengals.
With a 7-1-1 record and just five goals conceded, first-year starter Andy Queen is making a case that there won't be a letdown in net. The 6'2 junior did make a few big stops against Medaille, but also showed major nerves at times, especially with the ball at his feet. Queen's five saves against Brockport is a good omen for the future, although he'll face much more threatening offenses in October.
10) MASSIVE EXPECTATIONS: The definition of achievement has changed in each of Howlett's five years at the helm. Early on, simply making the SUNYAC playoffs was the goal. The was achieved in the head coach's first year, as the Bengals saw postseason action for the first time in six years.
After a down year in 2014, Buffalo State couldn't get over the hump in 2015, advancing to the playoffs before falling to Cortland. Last year saw Buffalo State win its first playoff game - a quarterfinal win over New Paltz - since 1984, but a semifinal loss to the same foe as the previous year left the squad wanting more.
But in 2017, it's logical to think only a SUNYAC championship will satisfy the lofty expectations of Pavone, Wasson, Benyehuda, Clavin and other seniors. The usual foes - Cortland, Plattsburgh and dominant Oneonta - stand in the way, but Howlett's side is better equipped than ever to make a run.