Luke Pavone smiles a lot more than he used to.
The Buffalo State midfielder has reason to be pleased -- he's already helped the Bengals to nine wins, tied for the program's most since 2008, with two games remaining in the regular season. A transfer from NCAA Division I school University of Massachusetts, Pavone ranks second in State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) in goals, with 11, and was named offensive player of the week for the conference in early October.
What's more impressive is that Pavone's individual success is embedded into a culture of winning and selflessness fostered by Mark Howlett, a head coach who pairs a high-level player's soccer mind with an uncanny ability to convince a diverse team of 26 to buy in toward one goal.
Howlett is the primary reason why Pavone, a former underclassman starter wearing the coveted No. 10 at an Atlantic 10 school, would suddenly decide to transfer to a non-scholarship program with an unremarkable soccer history.
A story of roots-shaking loss, brotherly love and loyalty has made the Pavone-Howlett relationship special and given local soccer fans an additional reason to pull for an oft-forgotten Division III program.
Mark Howlett had two options in the summer of 2005: return to his native Portsmouth, England, for the summer after his freshman year at Roberts Wesleyan College, or hang around Rochester to be close to his girlfriend, Regan Sherwood, a guard on the college's basketball team who lived nearby.
If he was to stay in Rochester, Howlett -- already a starter on the men's NAIA American Mideast Conference champions in 2004 -- would need a place to live. He'd only been in America for less than a year, so he had few options and minimal funds. But he knew that past Roberts players had stayed at the Churchville home of Marty Pavone, who helped train the team's goalies.
"[Pavone] had recently come off of a heart attack in February or March that year," Howlett recalls, "But I called touching base and pretty much put it out there that I didn't have anywhere to live, and within 30 seconds he said, 'I'll be over tomorrow; we can grab your stuff and you can stay here.' It wasn't awkward -- [his family] kind of just took me in..."
Such a selfless, accommodating move fit the description of Marty Pavone, who was eager to help out youngsters, especially when it came to soccer. He'd played keeper for the University at Buffalo in the early 1980s before playing and coaching in Rochester, and then taught over 20 years at Cosgrove Middle School in the Spencerport School District, the same district he attended growing up.
At the time he took in Howlett, Pavone was still intimately involved in the sport of his youth, coaching his 8-year-old son, Luke.
For Luke and his older brother by three years, Alex, Howlett's arrival was a dream for two aspiring athletes. Not only were the brothers given another role model to look up to, but Luke -- whose focus always seemed to be soccer -- had one of the best NAIA players in the country helping coach his teams and serving as an unexpected second "big brother."
When Howlett woke up early on Saturday or Sunday mornings to flip on the television to see his beloved English Premier League side Arsenal, Luke was right there with him. He learned to hate Manchester United, a rival of the Gunners, as well as Liverpool, his brother's favorite club.
To this day, Luke religiously watches YouTube videos of Arsenal talisman Alexis Sanchez, a hard-working, fleet-of-foot winger whose boundless passion and dynamism have quickly made him a Gunners icon.
When Roberts Wesleyan was in season, Luke would tag along to every training session after school, watching and emulating Howlett, who was chosen as an honorable mention NAIA All-American that year. The sophomore forward was strong, highly technical and a little combustible, attributes that made him entertaining to watch because no one knew whether he'd boil over on a referee or unleash a howitzer into the upper-90.
Before and after classes for the day, Howlett would see Luke and Alex off on the bus and greet them when they got home, which usually sparked some kind of athletic activity.
"They were just sports people, always out in the backyard," Howlett says. "...It was that family atmosphere where they'd get off the bus and play basketball; I'd always put [the rim] at the height where only I could dunk on it and they couldn't," he added, with a sheepish grin.
Other memories of Luke's youth still resonate with Howlett, who relished the role of being the Pavone boys' "big brother," something he'd wanted but never had growing up.
"It must have been wacky Wednesday at [Luke's] school," recalls Howlett, "and he was in a Portsmouth shirt that my dad had brought over [from England], and different colored soccer socks and red hair. I remember getting back from college and having homework to do, but seeing if I could help get ready for that [instead]."
Even when Howlett transferred to Judson University, another NAIA school where he added two more All-American honors to his resume, the Englishman returned to the Pavone household during the summers, and his family in England grew close to the Pavones, too, through visits stateside.
"It was really a home away from home," Howlett says now, "and [Emily, Marty's wife; and Marty] were parents of mine really in a way that helped me grow up and helped me mature. Even if [Marty] saw me going along the wrong path, he'd set me straight."
In his own soccer career, Luke Pavone was cruising along. He and his father shared the same dream of Luke playing NCAA Division I soccer, and after starting with Churchville travel and the Rochester Junior Rhinos, Luke made the Empire United Rochester team that stuck together to win state tournaments in eight out of nine years.
He developed alongside goalie Alex Bono, a member of Toronto FC (MLS) who's been called into the U.S. Men's National Team camp; "Swiss Army knife" Jordan Allen, who now stars for Real Salt Lake and made the U-23 U.S. World Cup roster; as well as Mike Koegel (Syracuse), Ethan Kutler (Colgate) and Josh Vendetta (Hobart and William Smith).
Marty Pavone was very involved, too, serving as goalie coach for the Empire United squad. In a move that was probably smart for everyone, Luke's father gave up on trying to make his son, who now stands 5'10, into a goalie, although the son remembers hundreds of goalie training exercises.
"I prefer to be the fourth-string keeper," Luke says now, with a grin.
Given Empire's success in prestigious tournaments, attention from colleges came early to Luke, as Atlantic 10 school University of Massachusetts was the first to show interest in the Churchville-Chili sophomore.
Howlett was around for this, too, as he'd bought a house in Rochester, married Regan and fathered two daughters, Lillian and Willow, within two years post-college. He worked as Director of Coaching for the girls' side of Doug Miller Soccer, a youth academy in Rochester, served as head coach for the Rochester Ravens of the W-League and helped with recruiting for Nazareth College.
He continued to watch Luke's games and accompanied the Pavones on tournament trips, which served a dual purpose.
"It used to be nice because the showcase tournaments that [Luke's] team used to go to were among the best in the country," Howlett explained. "I used to tag along with his dad and then I wouldn't have to spend my recruiting budget -- I used to just get gas on the way there."
After his junior year of high school, Luke received offers from "basically every SUNY school," but he settled on UMass early in his senior year, and to the delight of his father and with a mutual feeling of accomplishment, Division I futbol lay ahead.
Luke led his Churchville-Chili team with 11 goals and four assists as a senior, was named Monroe County Division III Player of the Year, made the All-Greater Rochester squad and earned fifth-team All-State, but his Saints finished just 7-7-4. He'd chosen high school soccer over playing for the Empire Revolution Academy -- which unites the best players from Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse under one umbrella -- because he'd never won a sectional tournament in either soccer or lacrosse.
That championship proved elusive, but that Pavone would have been selected for that prestigious squad is a testament to his talent.
The date was April 12, 2013, and Luke Pavone and his dad planned to drive that night to an out-of-state Empire tournament, something they'd done together dozens of times before.
This time was different.
"I remember waiting at my house for [my dad] to pick me up to go to a tournament in Delaware," Luke recollects. "But he never came."
Marty Pavone died at age 51. Neither Luke nor Howlett would give further details into what happened that day, other than Howlett calling it "sudden and gut-wrenching." There's no public record for the cause of death. Marty's students created a Facebook page so current and former pupils could share memories of their beloved gym teacher, which overflowed.
Howlett, who was vacationing in Key Largo, Fla., at the time, flew back to New York immediately upon hearing the news. The funeral mass was held the following Wednesday, April 17, at St. Pius Tenth Church in Chili. Luke Pavone remembers one moment vividly.
"Mark was the closest to a dad that I had [left]," he says. "I remember him to the right of me, letting me cry on his shoulder at the funeral, and vice versa."
Luke did not return to high school -- he'd already been accepted into UMass and had done enough to graduate from Churchville-Chili. He spent the following weeks grieving with his mother and older brother, trying to restore balance to a shaken foundation before he left the state for college.
His father's death softened Luke's approach to daily life. When it was soccer, soccer, soccer, before, the tragedy brought other spheres of life into focus.
"It made me not take anything for granted," reminisced Luke, while sitting shivering on the bleachers at Buffalo State's Coyer Field in early October. "I now had more respect for relationships, because I never knew what could happen the next day."
While the family coped with Marty Pavone's death, Howlett -- then preparing for his first season as head coach of Buffalo State -- spent significant time with them. Fortunately, he'd been staying with his in-laws in Rochester, as the rest of his family remained in Canton, where he'd spent three seasons leading the men's soccer program and Regan served as assistant women's basketball coach.
There was no mistaking how difficult the time was for Howlett -- to this day, a photo of Marty Pavone sits next to a picture of his daughters on his desk at Buffalo State -- but as the big-brother or father figure, he knew Luke was his responsibility.
"It was good for me to be there for him, especially because of how young and emotional he was," Howlett says, leaning back in his office chair, his voice growing a little softer. "It was nice to do that, and it helped with my grieving as well. I knew I could act in a way that [his family] could understand."
"I just wanted to make sure I was there for him and for all of them," he added, broadening the scope of his feelings beyond Luke. "Emily, his mom, has done so much for me as well."
Luke Pavone left Rochester for Amherst, Mass., in August 2013 to begin his college soccer career with the Minutemen. UMass had finished 5-11-2 the year prior, and head coach Sam Koch hoped his Western New York recruit could inject life into an offense that scored just once in the season's final four matches.
Pavone started and played 97 minutes in his first match, a scoreless draw against Evansville, then proceeded to start 10 of the next 11 matches before tearing his meniscus against George Mason, ending his freshman season prematurely. At the time of his injury, the Minutemen held a lousy 1-9-1 record, but for Pavone individually, the team's culture helped him grieve over the loss of his dad.
"Both Coach Koch and [assistant] Roy Fink recruited me [to UMass], and they meant a lot to me," Pavone explained. "Koch, especially, gave me guidance and provided a lot of support after I lost my dad."
Pavone's fellow Minutemen, too, supported him through a tough period.
"Cody Sitton, one of my teammates, had recently lost his brother in Afghanistan," Pavone remembers. "We knew in each other's minds what the other had gone through. We kept a boundary and didn't talk much [about our particular situations], but sometimes I'd see him a little more down than other times, and vice versa, so we'd be there to pick each other up."
Being forced to watch almost the entire Atlantic 10 season from the bench was tough for a competitor like Pavone, but he now looks back fondly because of the support system that held him together despite living five hours from his family.
Demoralized that his father was never able to see him play in a college match, Luke stills seems proud that he fulfilled his and his father's dreams of playing Division I, a happy memory -- among many -- to which he'll be able to cling forever.
In a cruel twist, tragedy struck Pavone again the summer before his sophomore year.
Still eligible to play for the Empire Rochester U19s, Pavone was traveling in New Jersey for the Central Jersey Invitational, a tournament that Empire dominated, winning all four matches and outscoring foes 19-1. Casually checking his email on that Sunday evening in late July, Pavone sat stunned as he read the news.
Sam Koch, the head coach at UMass the previous 23 years -- who'd recruited Pavone -- had died from sinus cancer. Even though Koch had battled the illness for roughly two years, Pavone was still shocked by the news, as he recalled Koch improving rather than regressing from the disease.
"They weren't even two years apart," says Pavone, referring to the deaths of his father and collegiate coach. "I just kind of lived day by day after that."
Life continued to deteriorate for Pavone into the fall, as he found himself more productive on the field but unhappy under interim head coach Devin O'Neill, who'd previously served as an assistant under Koch.
"Unlike the year before, there were cliques on the team," Pavone recalls, "and division between ages became a problem, the upperclassmen vs. the underclassmen."
Still, the sophomore's playing time didn't suffer, and he led the Minutemen to their first win of the year, 2-0 over Fairfield, assisting on both goals. A few games later, Pavone notched his first collegiate goal -- a counterattack finish against Hartford -- with his mother in attendance as a surprise.
At a distance, the trajectory of Pavone's soccer career seemed to be on the upswing. In truth, it wasn't.
Losing erodes the camaraderie of all but special teams -- perhaps like what UMass had under Koch. As fall wore on in 2014, a divided UMass squad, plus a torn knee ligament (LCL) suffered late in the season, spiraled Pavone into a personal slump. To whom could he turn?
"I remember calling [Howlett] from UMass, crying, telling him that I didn't like the new coach and some of my teammates, and that I wanted to go somewhere else," Pavone recollects. "He was a set of ears, and he never pushed me to play for him at Buffalo State."
Hogging Luke for himself was never Howlett's intention, especially because he respected the lofty dreams that Marty Pavone had shared with his son.
"I never brought it up with Luke or any of [the family] to come play with me, because I knew he'd want to play at the highest level he could," Howlett says. "I didn't want to make it awkward or difficult. I know the ambition that he has and the goals that he has."
Howlett pointed Pavone to Stu Riddle, the head coach at the University at Buffalo, and the soon-to-be junior considered other Division I schools like Xavier and Syracuse.
But thinking back to his longstanding relationship with Howlett, Pavone realized that the next stage of his career had already been chosen.
"It was handed to me," Pavone says. "There was really no other option [in my mind] than to go play for Howlett."
A former Division I starter would take his talents to NCAA Division III, a land of no athletic scholarships, all because he knew it was the right decision.
Luke Pavone and Mark Howlett share more in common than a brotherly bond. They may be built differently -- Howlett solid and powerful, Pavone lithe and shifty -- but they play soccer with the same mindset.
"My dad taught me to play with piss and vinegar," says Pavone, referring to a cliche that means "aggressive energy." "He'd always egg me on."
When Howlett's family would visit Rochester from England, Mark's father would take Luke aside, discussing the bite of certain professional players -- not in a Suarezian way -- and how it could prove useful.
The goal that the Bengals junior scored against Fredonia in the Lake Erie Derby -- and the ensuing celebration -- was case in point. Stepping up to a free kick roughly 25 yards from goal, Pavone struck a knuckling shot that dipped under the crossbar, setting off a raucous celebration, as the Bengals had jumped in front by two with less than 10 minutes to play.
The jubilant midfielder ran by Fredonia's bench, clutching the Buffalo State crest on his jersey and staring down his defeated foes. His celebration was met with a slew of middle fingers from the Blue Devils' bench, and the match carried on without further incident.
"I'm not the most liked player," Pavone admitted, "and sometimes the game gets the better of you. It happened [when I scored] against Hartford while I was at UMass, too."
Howlett tries to instill an "edge" in all his players, an attitude that doesn't mean poor sportsmanship or being "scummy," but reflects an intensity, confidence and willingness to pry below an opponent's skin. Soccer is as much a mental and emotional contest as it is a physical game.
"The best teams and players have that [quality], and I was probably guilty as a player of crossing that line a number of times, in which I try not to bring up because I don't want them to think it's OK, but it also made me the type of player that I was," Howlett says of himself. "Luke has it, but he has it in a more controlled way."
There are signs, though, that Pavone is trying to be more level headed -- perhaps as an example to his teammates -- even if it's against his nature. Howlett has given him a book to read about leadership and, unprompted by his head coach, Pavone emailed an apology to Fredonia head coach P.J. Gondek for his celebration.
More than anything, the chance for Luke Pavone to start anew at Buffalo State -- in the face of criticism from former teammates about going from DI to DIII -- was as good for his game as it was for his mind.
On the field, the prized transfer started the 2015 season white-hot, scoring three goals and setting up two others in the Bengals' 3-0 start. He's now up to 11 goals on the year -- tied for second in SUNYAC -- as Buffalo State needs one win from two matches this weekend to secure a playoff spot.
Pavone is the program's biggest advocate, noting how his friends considered him crazy throughout the summer when he relentlessly touted the Bengals' coming season.
"The history [of the soccer program] hasn't been the best here," he says. "But the guys like being the underdog and having a point to prove."
And Pavone's infectious smile has been key to the tight-knit culture on this Bengals team, a smile that's been largely dormant for two years.
"[The move] boiled down to him wanting to enjoy it again -- he wasn't enjoying it at UMass, and he just wanted to feel comfortable again in an environment," Howlett summarizes. "Now you see him smiling every day, and sometimes it's not the level you're playing at, but the environment that you're playing within that brings out the best in people, and I think that's what's happening right now."
Coach and player try to set aside their big brother-little brother relationship during training and games, and for the most part, it's worked.
"I don't think a lot of [Bengals teammates] would know that there's been that past relationship there," Howlett says. "I try to treat the guys the same. There's been times where Luke's done something and I've chewed him out just like I would someone else, and I think that guys see that.
"But there's also the softer side during holiday periods and times when our families get together -- that's when it's more of a loving and family relationship."
The ties between the Howletts and the Pavones have remained strong, as Mark also keeps in touch with Luke's older brother, Alex.
"It's still very close and again still very dear to everybody -- the experiences that we've had," Howlett reflects. "My girls know his mom, Emily, is a big figure. Alex has house-sat for us. Things that family really do."
The picture of Marty Pavone on his desk reminds Howlett every day what it means to have an edge, but also how to keep himself in check. It reminds him of hospitality, generosity and of a dearly missed friend.
For both Buffalo State's coach and star player, the memories are fond, even when times are rough.
"A couple weeks ago [his dad's death] was hitting Luke a bit," Howlett said, "and we talked and smiled and thought of him smiling down on what's happening. He would have been the first person to want to be involved in it and help out. He would be proud of what's happening right now."
Buffalo State plays New Paltz at 3 p.m. Friday at Coyer Field, then faces Oneonta at 1 p.m. Saturday at the same location on Buffalo State College's campus.
Email Ben Tsujimoto at email@example.com