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Prep Talk: City schools' boys soccer teams bask in championship week spotlight

Exciting may not be a strong enough word to describe this week in sports for Buffalo Public Schools Athletics.

The euphoria isn’t limited to this Friday’s football action as three teams resume their quests to get to Championship Week at New Era Field.

Before Bennett, McKinley and Hutch-Tech try to extend the ex-Harvard Cup League’s streak of having at least one team reach the stadium formerly known as The Ralph to three consecutive years, the D’Youville Cup teams look to add Section VI championships to their respective schools’ trophy cases.

Just like football, the city’s boys soccer program will have three shots at attaining at least one title Wednesday and Thursday at Sweet Home High School.

Lafayette and I-Prep Grover get first and second cracks at shining under the bright lights of Bob Barczak Stadium during a Class B-1-B-2 doubleheader Wednesday night. McKinley takes its turn at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Class A-1 final against state No. 1 and unbeaten Grand Island.

All games are big, but that word fails to describe the importance of three city soccer teams still being in the hunt for championships.

“It’s huge,” summed up Athletic Director Aubrey Lloyd.

I-Prep (17-1) carries a 17-game winning streak into its Section VI Class B-1 final against reigning state runner-up East Aurora at 7:30 p.m. The contest is a rematch of last year’s overall Class B final where the five-time defending Section VI champion Blue Devils (14-3-1) defeated Class B-2 champion Grover in overtime to end the Presidents’ quest of winning a second straight state championship.

The undercard to that one is a pretty good, too, as potential mirror images square off with Lackawanna (15-2-1) facing Lafayette (10-6) at 5 p.m.

McKinley (14-4) caps Thursday’s Class A-1 and A-2 championship doubleheader when it faces defending champion Grand Island (18-0). Prior to that Iroquois (7-8-3) tries to defend its Class A-2 crown when it faces Lewiston-Porter (16-1-1) at 5 p.m.

While I-Prep is no stranger to soccer’s championship week, the Mighty Violets and Macks are new to the party. This is the first time either has reached a final during the long coaching tenures of Lafayette’s Brad Brodnicki and McKinley counterpart Mike Sorrentino (18 years). The two have coached their respective teams a combined 35 seasons.

“Now that we’re in the final, it is remarkable for all involved,” Sorrentino said.

“It’s a very big deal,” Brodnicki said. “I think three" city "teams making the finals prove there are some good teams in the city. The talent level is very high.”

While the Violets and Macks are similar to I-Prep in that the bulk of their players are skilled international students (McKinley has players from 13 different nations, Lafayette nine) who have quickly jelled, that’s not the only reason for their successes. The addition of more junior varsity teams and a summer camp for district children ages 5-13 have enabled the programs to take it to another level.

The district has in essence created its own feeder system, which is vital for success for any sports team. That’s why suburban teams like Clarence, Grand Island and East Aurora consistently contend for sectional titles in soccer. It helps the Buffalo schools that soccer has surged in popularity.

“Let me frame this,” Lloyd said. “Buffalo Public Schools demographics ever since we’ve went from nine Harvard Cup teams to six we’ve seen a decline in participation numbers in football. But at the same time and this is a positive, we’ve seen an increase in the number of participants in soccer.”

So much so that the district had to add four more junior varsity teams the past five years. In 2011, City Honors – a past Section VI champion, by the way – was the only city school with a JV team.

The Centaurs are now part of a five-team developmental league which includes McKinley, I-Prep, Hutch-Tech and Lafayette, with the latter adding its JV team this season.

“I think the junior varsity put us at a new level,” Sorrentino said. “It helped us out tremendously. One of the junior varsity players (skilled freshman center midfielder Sajan Magar) is starting on varsity now. A kid like that, I might not have even known him if not for the JV program. He had four goals in one game and after that I said he’s no longer a member of the JV program. He’s a member of varsity.”

“It is growing,” Lloyd said. “I anticipate adding more JV soccer next year. …  It’s going to become one of the major sports for Buffalo Public Schools.”

The addition of junior varsity could also reduce a recurring Lafayette problem.

“Sometimes I only have a year or two (with players) because some of them only come in when they’re 17 or 18,” said Brodnicki, noting that athletic eligibility ends in the state at age 19 regardless of a student’s academic standing. “It will help us in the following years. We can work with these kids that are a little bit younger and prepare them. ... It’ll be better for varsity going forward.”

The focus now, though, is on increasing interest in the soccer the old-fashioned way: by winning a title or three, but it won’t be easy.

McKinley has perhaps the most daunting task. The Macks face a team Sorrentino says has no weaknesses. Grand Island averages 6.33 goals per game and has played like a team still smarting from last year’s tough state semifinal loss.

The Macks are battle-tested, though, as each of their four losses have come against teams either still playing or, in Riverside’s case, lost in the sectional semifinals. They’ve also defeated the ECIC II Division co-champions and perennial title-contenders Hamburg and Sweet Home during the playoff run. McKinley, which features a nice mix of seniors and underclassmen, doesn’t plan to change its fast, aggressive approach.

“All you can do is put out the best you have and see how it holds up,” Sorrentino said.

Allee Yan and Dhah Htoo have led a McKinley defense that’s yielded just two goals the past seven games. Quick, smart sophomore Arstote Muangala has proven to be a solid final line of defense in goal. Zacharia Shiabi (22 goals) and Isaac Sabtow (11 goals) each scored three times in Friday’s 6-1 semifinal win at Sweet Home.

Lafayette, meanwhile, tweaked its approach during the postseason. It moved midfielder Abdisamad Hassan to defense as the Violets installed a counter-attack system that capitalizes on their speed.

Sophomore forward Theovie Louzala, who just came to the United States from the Congo this year, leads the Violets with 14 goals. Jamar Din from Thailand has five goals and six assists.

“I believe if we can get the first goal and put the pressure on them early, the way my defense has been playing we should be able to win,” said Brodnicki, whose team has yielded just six goals during a four-game winning streak.

Speaking of streaks, I-Prep has won every game since opening the season with a 3-2 loss to St. Joe’s. The Presidents, who have 14 returnees from last season, have outscored foes 85-9. Pa Lu (22 goals) and Abdullahi Hussein (17 goals) lead the offense. The experienced defense includes Siang Lian and Than Win Naing.

I-Prep still will have to be sharp if it wants to dethrone an East Aurora team that rarely beats itself this time of year. The Blue Devils also have talented scorers in Pat Philips (20 goals) and Bryce Schlitz (15).

“Their program pretty much speaks for itself,” Presidents coach Tony Alessi said of EA. “They’re very well coached. …  They always come prepared.

“We’re playing good soccer right now.”

I-Prep’s not alone.

City swim update

The Buffalo Public Schools girls swimming made waves when it took the plunge to compete during the fall season for the first time in district history and qualified a relay for the Section VI Championships in its very first race.

The merged team, consisting of athletes from City Honors, Olmsted, Hutch-Tech, I-Prep and two middle schools (Futures and Discovery), will be represented in three events during next week’s meet. The qualifiers are the 200 medley relay (Mei Brenner-Herkey, Julia Penchaszadeh Robert and sisters Isabelle and Cecelia Brown), the 200 IM (Alexandra Switalski) and the 200 free relay (Brenner-Herkey, Switalski, Penchaszadeh Robert, Isabelle Brown and sub: Melhea Gachette).

Regardless of how they finish at sectionals, the fact they’ve earned their way into the meet is proof the city made a good call in adding an in-season competitive girls team.

“That puts to rest that we cannot compete with the suburban schools and other Section VI and private teams,” Lloyd said. “I think these girls have proven a lot of people wrong. Their dedication and hard work are the reasons they’ve gotten this far.”

Kozaks welcome special guests

Frontier boys soccer coach Rich Kozak shared cool news with Prep Talk.

The family is entertaining special guests from England in Harry and Trevor Townsend. Harry is the lad Kozak’s son Jonah met last August during the prestigious Bayern Munich Allianz Football Camp in Germany.

The boys have remained friends despite the distance, staying in contact via social media. This week’s conversations, though, are taking place face-to-face instead of via snapchat.

Of course, the Kozaks are helping them enjoy the true Western New York experience, including a trip to Canalside as well as a pizza and wings dinner (with leftovers serving as breakfast the next day) from La Nova. Plans include attending Thursday's Buffalo Sabres versus Minnesota Wild hockey game at KeyBank Center.

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