Prep Talk: North Tonawanda boys soccer breaks free of its past struggles - The Buffalo News

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Prep Talk: North Tonawanda boys soccer breaks free of its past struggles

North Tonawanda's Jason Lindhurst calls it humbling being in position to play for a championship.

Surreal and surprising also would be pretty good adjectives in this case.

Collectively, all those words work to describe the feeling flowing through the North Tonawanda boys soccer team heading into Thursday night's Niagara Frontier League championship game at 7:30 against Grand Island at Lewiston-Porter High School.

It's a shining moment for a program that has won more games this year (10) than in the previous three combined (nine). NT also has posted its first double-digit win season since 2011. Should the Lumberjacks win the league title, it'll be their first since 1990 – also known as the playing days of co-head coach Steve Sabo.

"It means a lot to end senior year with a bang," said Lindhurst, a senior defender, before Wednesday's practice.

There's another adjective that fits the situation: stunning. It's also the word that best describes the turnaround, considering NT dealt with more than just won-loss issues last year.

To review:  A hazing/bullying accusation became public knowledge when an upset parent staged a one-person sit-in at midfield before a game. That led to NT Athletic Director Jeff Alger addressing the team after that contest, words that resulted in the guilty party confessing and apologizing to the victim.

Alger then decided to bring in former NT girls soccer coach Sabo on an interim basis to help restore some of the luster of the program that lost its way.

Midseason coaching changes are rare in high school sports, but bringing back Sabo, who stepped down from the girls team in order to coach his children's youth teams, helped point the Lumberjacks in the right direction.

It began with Sabo making the youths understand the importance of respecting not only their coaches but also teammates. Sabo also referenced, at least once, the proud past of a program that back in the day produced a pair of All-Americans.

It morphed into something different once Sabo and Alger discussed what must happen to help the program return to respectability during the offseason.

"To rebuild this year, and this is what I said to the AD last year … 'it takes more than one person to turn the program around quickly. We needed to have two people at least,'" Sabo said.

Enter 2007 NT alumnus and last year's junior varsity coach Rob Brocklehurst. He received a promotion along with several of his players to the varsity team, with Brocklehurst and Sabo sharing the duties of head coach.

Both say they work well together and it's with good reason. They both have similar ideas as to what a team must do in order to experience success on the field.

"Teaching respect and routine: If you don't respect your own team you're not going to respect your opponent coming in," Brocklehurst said.

"The problem is if you don't instill discipline in a team, set a routine and set priorities and give a focus right at the onset of a season you get a mess," Sabo said several minutes later in a separate interview. "If there's one problem, it escalates into two, then four and then exponentially rise.

The routine goes from setting the bench according on game days to players having a set pre-game ritual so that preparation and on-field performance becomes second nature.

At times the co-coach situation in sports hasn't worked for one reason or another, but the situation has gone rather smoothly at NT.

"Rob helps us mentally prepare more for games and Steve is more of a tactical guy who puts us in positions and tells us where to put the ball," senior midfielder Jared Zadzilka said.

"I've known Steve for a long time," Brocklehurst said. "We kind of know what each other is thinking. We support each other and the decisions we make. We can basically predict what we're going to be wearing to the games."

Respect, discipline, routine and determination resulted in NT matching that year's win total (three) through the opening three games. It didn't stop there, with the Lumberjacks starting the season 8-0-1. NT's 10-2-3 mark includes wins over a pair of double-digit win teams (Kenmore East and Starpoint), along with victories over Lew-Port and Riverside – which also had winning records as of Wednesday afternoon.

While there are several returnees from last year, it turns out the program as a whole has some solid players. NT's roster consists of one freshman, two sophomores, 10 juniors and nine seniors. It has received a goal from players in each class with junior Colin Archibald (team-high 12 goals), sophomore Tyler MacNeil (nine goals, five assists) and Zadzilka (six goals), who missed the last half of last year with an injury, among those leading the charge.

All of this shows what can happen if talented kids are given direction and reasonable expectations within a structured environment.

"We got a routine for the players," Sabo said. "Here are our goals. This is what we're going to achieve this year. If we don't get there, this is the second thing we want to achieve."

Right now, the Lumberjacks want to win a championship. They have an opportunity, but should they fail it won't change the fact that they've not only come a long way but have given future editions of the team a standard to meet, a standard to exceed.

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