One of the best youth soccer players in Western New York history has continued to shine in the college ranks.
Syracuse captain Liam Callahan -- a product of Sweet Home High School, Empire United and ODP Region I -- struck a game-winning penalty kick in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals against North Carolina and stood out for a defense that conceded just one goal in the four-game tournament.
The conference championship was the program's first as a member of the ACC and its first since the Orange won the Big East in 1985.
Callahan's name is still etched in the Western New York soccer record books despite graduating high school nearly four years ago. The Syracuse red-shirt junior was Sweet Home's first boys soccer All-American, a two-time All-New York State first-team selection, the Panthers' record holder in career assists (41) and a two-time All-Western New York pick during his four years under head coach Scott Martin.
Now, Callahan's Orange has earned the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and is set to host the winner of Dartmouth vs. Hartwick at 2 p.m. Nov. 22 at SU Soccer Stadium.
As the No. 9 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Syracuse lost in the third round to Georgetown, 2-1, in overtime. Back in the 2012 third round, the Orange fell to the Hoyas, 4-2 on penalties, after a 1-1 draw. The bracket is set up so that Callahan's side could meet Georgetown, the No. 3 seed, in the NCAA quarterfinals.
The day after the ACC Tournament championship, we caught up with Callahan, who's also plied his trade for FC Buffalo of the NPSL, the Villanova Wildcats (2012-13) and 2015 Premier Development League champions Kitchener-Waterloo United FC. (The following interview has been condensed due to length).
BN Soccer: What kind of experience was the ACC Tournament run for Syracuse?
Liam Callahan: It was unforgettable. If you told me in the beginning of the season that we'd have won, it would have been unbelievable. To win the ACC, the best part of the country for college soccer, it was a crazy moment.
BN: Syracuse was the No. 7 seed entering the conference tournament. How did everything come together so well at once?
Callahan: I can't really point to one moment, but something clicked and we got momentum at the right time. The team came to realize that, if we lost, we were out, and playing in the best conference in the country, every game was kind of like playing in a final. [The ACC season] really gets you ready for big tournaments, like the ACCs and the NCAA Tournament.
BN: What have you cleaned up defensively since the beginning of the season?
Callahan: We were a little rough [defending] restarts -- corner kicks and free kicks -- but our back three and the two wingers in front have been pretty solid all season. We had a couple new guys [on defense] and a new goalie, but they transitioned way faster than I expected them to -- we only allowed one goal in the ACCs.
[Callahan clarified that he's the left winger in the 3-5-2, part of the "5" that is responsible for getting up and down the flanks, contributing at both ends of the field. He is naturally left-footed.]
BN: Let's talk about the quarterfinal against UNC. It must have felt great to see your cross deflect into the net for the first goal, but I want to ask about the penalty-kick shootout. How was your mindset approaching your kick?
Callahan: It was nerve-racking. Coach Mac [Ian McIntyre] had us practice PKs four or five times [in practice] before the game, so it was a little easier, there was a little pressure taken off. I just told myself I had to put it in to give the team a lift. I had a little luck -- the shot had a more lift than usual to go into the top corner.
BN: You have a lot of ties in Western New York. What kind of support have you received from Sweet Home, Empire, FC Buffalo?
Callahan: My family came to the final against Notre Dame. I've talked to Coach [Scott] Martin and tweeted some with people from FC Buffalo. It's crazy to think about all of the people who are thinking about you, the support from people I haven't talked to in a while. I try to get back to as many people as I can after each game.
BN: What are your thoughts on the NCAA Tournament draw?
Callahan: We're in a good spot -- it's the highest [seed] Syracuse has ever had. I thought we could have been higher, though. We get the winner of Dartmouth and Hartwick, and we're just going to take it one match at a time.
BN: A rematch against Georgetown is possible for the NCAA quarterfinals.
Callahan: We're taking this one game at a time, but it is funny to think about that [match-up]. Two of the last three years Syracuse's season has ended against Georgetown. If we get there, it'll be our biggest game of the season.
Email Ben Tsujimoto at firstname.lastname@example.org