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Prep Talk: Sabo wants to change the culture for NT soccer

Steve Sabo may not be in his new coaching job as long as he was in his previous gig at North Tonawanda, but it will be up to him to give the Lumberjacks boys’ soccer program the same direction he gave the girls team for nearly two decades.

That would be pointing upward, which is something the program needs since it recently hit bottom in the wake of bullying accusations.

Sabo returned to the NT sideline Monday, taking over as interim boys soccer coach for Joe Wilkie. Although Athletic Director Jeff Alger told The Buffalo News on Wednesday the bullying allegations that surfaced late last week had nothing to do with the switch, one can’t help but think that played a role. Midseason coaching changes rarely happen at the scholastic level.

“Bottom line is I didn’t like the direction the program was headed in,” Alger said. “It has nothing to do with the hazing issue.” reported the alleged bullying on the NT boys soccer team – accusations that included destruction of the victim’s property. The parents, Jeanette and Steve Toth, notified the former coach about the situation, believing other school officials would be informed. According to the report, Wilkie told the parents that it was determined there was no way to prove that any harassment had happened and it was time to move on. That didn’t sit well with the Toths, with Jeanette staging a pregame sit-in at midfield with a lawn chair to get their point across and to draw out district higher-ups to further discuss the matter.

It worked.

Alger, who told The News he didn’t learn of the accusations until the day before the protest, met with the team and informed players there would be consequences if the guilty person or persons didn’t come forward. The school’s athletic code of conduct – something all student-athletes at NT sign – considers bullying/hazing a serious offense although it doesn’t list specific punishments.

Alger didn’t say whether he planned to have the team forfeit games until the guilty party confessed, referring to the code of conduct. Whatever he said during the postgame huddle after the protest apparently worked. The guilty person confessed, issued an apology to his teammate and family and apparently satisfied everyone involved to the point where the team remained intact.

“The district moved swiftly to make sure things are taken care of,” Alger said. “The Toths are satisfied with it.”

The Toths declined an interview request, but Steve Toth confirmed the report and said “the situation has been resolved.” Wilkie declined an interview request via email.

“Once I heard about (the accusations), I jumped into action,” Alger said.

But did jumping into action include the decision to change coaches?

It’s true the boys’ soccer program has struggled for years, coming into 2016 off back-to-back two-win seasons. Sabo, the third coach in as many seasons, inherits a program that’s experienced victory just 21 times since 2011.

So, if hazing didn’t play a role in the decision, then Wilkie got released for failing to be a miracle worker.

Back-to-back two-win seasons are a far cry from the way it used to be during Sabo’s playing days. The 1992 graduate remembers when the Lumberjacks were contenders during Jeff Hoerner’s coaching tenure as the program produced two high school All-Americans, including former Major League Soccer player Steve Butcher.

“The way things have been going with the boys soccer program all of the alumni … we’re not happy,” said Sabo, who won 185 games, coached in two Section VI finals and coached four future Division I players during his 17 seasons guiding the Lady Jacks. Coaching the boys “is something I’ve always looked forward to. … This gives me a chance to get it back to the way it was in the 1990s.”

While Sabo believes teaching players about the program’s successful past along with putting in the work necessary to improve skills is crucial, that’s just part of the challenge in returning the program to respectability.

The other part comes from learning from recent mistakes – specifically the hazing incident.

Alger is determined to make sure there are no more instances of bullying within the athletic program as a whole, noting it’s a priority of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association to provide a safe, fun atmosphere for its athletes.

Alger’s plans for preventative/educational measures include having coaches and student-athletes participate in future state-run seminars and in the soon-to-be formed captain’s club program. The latter includes captains of each sport and Alger meeting once a month in gatherings that will feature different speakers on conference call. He also plans to have NT athletes become more involved in the community.

“We’re going to make this into an educational athletic program where kids will learn how to be leaders and how to succeed so that people can be proud of what we’re doing,” Alger said. “These kids are supposed to be leaders and role models.”

It all starts with respecting teammates, coaches and the game. Regardless of how long Sabo’s coaching comeback at the school remains (he gave up the NT girls job to spend more time with his own children and coach their youth teams), history shows he’ll get those points across.

“If you don’t give kids direction in any sports program, give them discipline and come up with expectations,” Sabo said, “things can happen.”

That’s so true.


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