Brandon Guild remembers all the attention the Royalton-Hartland girls basketball team received last winter when it won the Section VI Class B-2 title.
The exhibition of school pride exuded by the student body, faculty and members of the community was like nothing he had ever experienced in his time in the Roy-Hart school system.
While he was proud of what the basketball team had accomplished -- winning its first sectional title -- he also was a bit envious. Never in his Roy-Hart athletic career had he been part of a winning team, not to mention a championship team.
All athletes want the chance to bask in the championship spotlight, and have the opportunity to be revered, while walking within the confines of the school or cruising down the streets to the local pizza parlor or convenience store. It's validation that all the hard work and dedication to a sport hasn't gone unnoticed.
Most importantly, championship moments become a lasting memory for everyone involved -- from the players, to the coaches, to the water boy and fans -- because it's something that will always be remembered.
Especially the first one.
Guild and his teammates on the Roy-Hart boys soccer team now know what it feels like to be champions and have given the others in school a reason to feel proud, happy and envious. They've become the first Rams team to ever advance to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Final Four.
While the girls basketball team's successful season came to an end in the Section VI Class B regional qualifier against Fredonia, the Rams were the only Section VI boys soccer team to beat a Rochester-area Section V school in the Far West Regionals last weekend to earn the trip to Oneonta, where it faced Section III (Syracuse area) Westhill on Saturday (See Sports Sunday for game results).
"It's a high school athlete's dreams to go to states," said Guild, who was converted from forward to goalie earlier this season and has been a stonewall throughout the playoffs. "In class, it's the talk around school. All of the teachers look up to us now. It feels good."
"A lot of people know about it and a lot of people come up and congratulate you," added senior captain Matt Barr, who helped the Rams secure their first sectional title and trip to regionals with a goal in regulation and the clinching goal in the shootout two Wednesdays ago against perennial power Holland.
"As far as the attitude in the school, it's very good to be a boys varsity soccer player because we never really got that much respect . . .," Barr said. "We've turned a lot of heads as far as opinions go as to how soccer is."
The opinion that's turned: that soccer isn't a real sport, that it's a sport played by "girls," or that those who play International "futbol" do so because they're scared away by the physicality of American football.
But the body takes a pounding playing soccer, and not all of it is because of the running. Ball handlers often get kicked in the knees or legs when defenders are trying to steal the rock. While shinguards provide some protection, they're utterly useless when players collide in the air when battling to hit the ball with their heads.
But even those who have mocked the soccer players have been caught up in the sudden soccer craze that has engulfed this village near the Orleans County border, Barr said. He saw these individuals cheer on the team as the Roy-Hart bus cruised through the village during the two impromptu victory parades that followed the Rams' shootout triumph over Holland and Far West Regional win over Section V power Bishop Kearney.
Though initially skeptical of their sudden about-face, Barr admits he likes the fact that so many have joined the fan wagon. "You like that they're giving you the respect you deserve," he said.
The program has been earning respect the past seven seasons, albeit at a snail's pace.
After being mired in mediocrity for most of its 21 seasons as a varsity sport, Roy-Hart qualified for the Section VI playoffs in 1997 when teams needed at least a .500 record to secure a playoff spot.
The team hasn't missed the postseason since, with the playoff format changed two years ago to include all teams, regardless of record. The first championship moment for the program came in 2000, when it won the Niagara-Orleans League championship. The first Section VI playoff win came in 2003.
"For our school this is very big," said athletic director and boys basketball coach Mark Rydza. "Athletically we haven't had a lot of titles. We haven't been very competitive in sectional play in many of our sports. This is very big for our school. It puts us on the map as far as soccer goes. Being that we're the only Section VI team to advance to the state tournament is something special."
Signs that this could be a truly special season surfaced early when the Rams beat nearby Section V power Holley for the first time.
Roy-Hart's strength is its exceptionally quick defense, which caused Bishop Kearney fits last weekend. Even though the Kings fired 15 shots on Guild, most of them were from the outside as the defense altered shot selection by clogging shooting lanes. The quick defense also fuels the Rams transition game.
Of course any good team needs some luck along the way to get this far. Roy-Hart had its lucky moments in the sectional final against Holland. The Rams built a 2-0 lead in the second half because they scored on their odd-man breaks. But they blew the lead in the final eight minutes. They survived two overtime sessions in which the Dutchmen hit a crossbar and goal post and misfired on several other quality-scoring chances.
But a team doesn't beat five teams in one postseason and string together a 10-game unbeaten streak simply because it's lucky.
"They're keeping all the good shots down and when we get chances they're off odd-man breaks," said first-year coach Jeremiah Hicks, who has kept the atmosphere relaxed by having light, fun practices throughout the playoffs. "Now that we've been winning, we've become quite confident."
Even former coach Carl Husung has been part of this playoff run. Husung decided to coach the modified program this year, after piloting the varsity squad for 20 seasons, because he wanted to see his daughter play soccer at nearby Medina High School. He has been on the sidelines offering advice and encouragement to players, at the request of Hicks.
"I'm there just to support the guys," Husung said. "It's just gratifying seeing our program grow. I knew that the talent was coming up. I didn't know they'd be able to go this far. I had real strong family ties, and I wanted to see my daughter play. That was my first priority.
"I think what this group will do is it will inspire Roy-Hart teams in the future. It'll set a benchmark or a standard for future Roy-Hart teams to try to achieve."
Meanwhile, the athletes themselves will turn a few more heads.
"Now that we've come all this way," Barr said, "everyone kind of gives soccer the credit I feel we deserve with all of the hard work we put in."