2016 champions: Section VI: Clarence (Class AA), Grand Island (overall Class A), Iroquois (Class A-2), I-Prep (Overall Class B), Lackawanna (Class B-2), Allegany-Limestone (Class C), Pine Valley (Class D). Monsignor Martin Association: Canisius (large schools), St. Mary’s/Lancaster (small schools). IAC: Christian Central. Grand Island lost, 2-1, in the state final, while Canisius also lost in the state Catholic final.
2016 All-WNY first-team underclassmen: Spencer Frome-11 (St. Joe’s) and Bryce Schiltz-11 (East Aurora)
2016 All-WNY large schools underclassmen: John Griffin-11 (Grand Island), Zakaria Shiabi-11 (McKinley) and Steven Pufpaff-11 (Grand Island)
2016 All-WNY small schools underclassmen: Abdulhamid Albaneh-11 (Lackawanna), Cesar Carlin-11 (Wilson), Pat Phillips-11 (East Aurora), Abdullahi Hussein-11 (I-Prep), Peter Massaqueli-10 (Riverside), Trevor Moreland-11 (Newfane) and Dylan Talbot-11 (Allegany-Limestone)
Grand redemption: Grand Island reeled off 22 straight wins to start the season before falling in the Class A state final in double overtime, 2-1, to Section 1 Somers. Head coach Frank Butcher isn’t sure he’ll get over the loss ever, let alone at the start of this season.
“I think we were only losing for 10 minutes the whole season. It was just an incredible run,” Butcher said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever really be over it. It gets easier, but every once in a while you think back on it, just think about how close it was. I saw some kid that had a shirt that said “Somers” on it. It brings back the memories right away. You always think about what could’ve been.”
Butcher admits his team won’t be as strong this year because of who they lost to graduation, something that takes a toll on the team every year since varsity doesn’t utilize many, if any, freshman and sophomores.
The Vikings lose a pair of All-WNY first-teamers in forward Garrett Robinson and midfielder Jake Gleave. All-WNY large school midfielder Nemanja Simic also graduated.
The two big names to return for Butcher’s squad are goalkeeper Steve Pufpaff and forward John Griffin. Pufpaff didn’t allow a goal all regular season, and his only goal surrendered against WNY competition came when a defender sloppily gave the ball away, leading to a breakaway.
“He’ll be able to keep us in any game,” Butcher said of his keeper, “so we’ll always have a shot no matter what.”
Griffin, who found the back of the net 30 times in 2016, tore his meniscus and will likely be available in time for the playoffs, Butcher said. Junior midfielders Luke Ailinger and Connor Hutton will be relied on to produce from the center of the field as captains for a Grand Island team rehabbing and rebuilding after a near-undefeated year.
“Hopefully we can keep afloat,” Butcher said. “ … You never know coming in.”
I-Prep prepping for a rebuild: Anthony Alessi lost more than half of his starting lineup that carried his team to the Far West Regionals last year. The most notable of the bunch was Prep Talk Player of the Year Pa Lu, who scored 32 goals and assisted on 21 others.
The Presidents also graduated All-WNY first-team defender Siang Hnin Lian and All-WNY small school defender Than Win Naing. For the group that returns, they’ll have to shake off the bitter taste of its one-goal loss to Livonia that ended its 2016 season.
“We’re still not over it,” Alessi said. “It was really hard. I mean when you’re 30 seconds away from going to the state championship and you lose it on a free kick against the wind it’s a little tough to swallow. I had a veteran group, which made it even harder.
“To get in that position again is going to be extremely hard. … Five starters returning, I lost six, six real good starters. … so we’re gonna be hurting this year.”
I-Prep will count on Abdullahi Hussein for its goals. Hussein finished second behind Lu in that category last season. Alessi also expects significant contributions from junior Salomon Thang, the team’s fourth-leading scorer last year, twin junior midfielders Desay Htoo and Desay Wah and junior defender Ahzet Sher.
It’ll be an uphill road for the Presidents in getting back to the Far West Regionals, and an improving competitive balance in the league won’t make it any easier.
“Everybody’s good now. Riverside’s really tough and McKinley surprised a lot of teams last year by beating Hamburg and then beating Sweet Home,” Alessi said. “You play these teams twice, and then Lafayette. All the schools in the city are getting better so it’s getting harder and harder to win the city because the competition’s getting better.”
Clarence relying on a different side of the ball: All four Red Devils who made an All-WNY team last year graduated, and Mike Silverstein returns only one starting defender. It’ll be a rebuild on the side of the ball that carried Clarence to the Far West Regionals last year after surrendering only five goals all last season.
“We have pieces to fill those things in but we’re obviously gonna be looking for kids that didn’t have as many minutes,” Silverstein said. “Our back line was so strong last year we didn’t really sub them out.”
Clarence returns three regulars on offense, including last year’s leading scorer, junior Ross Showalter. Three-year varsity starter and senior Chris O’Brien returns in the midfield and junior Quinn Neelon will also factor on offense. Don’t expect the Red Devils to allow five goals all season, Silverstein said, so his offense will have to do more heavy lifting this time around.
“Hopefully offensively we can manufacture some goals,” Silverstein said. “I think we’re gonna have to score more goals this year to be successful.”
Outlook for Monsignor Martin: Expect the top two teams from last year's MMA to be at the forefront again this year, with the classic St. Joe's-Canisius rivalry set to give us another exciting season. A veteran Canisius team got the best of the Marauders three times last season, each by a single goal, but St. Joe's stocks up with 15 seniors on its roster this year to try and unseat the Crusaders - who lost 19 seniors - atop the Catholic school hierarchy.
"Canisius will be the team to beat until somebody beats them," St. Joe's head coach Mike Thoin said. " ... We stay healthy, we should be very, very hard to play against."
"It's gonna be a different year this year," Canisius head coach Chris Stuff said of his team's reloading. "I'm confident that we can repeat again, but we got a lot of work to do. It's a young team."
The Marauders return one of the area's best players in Frome, who will anchor the defense. "Spencer is unlimited," Thoin said. "He can do whatever he wants, and I don't mean to sound crazy. Canisius will be led by junior Alex Nemeth, who scored the game-winner in the MMA title game against St. Joe's last year. Thoin's squad will rely on a bevy of attackers from last year's 16-1-1 junior varsity squad to provide the scoring in 2017, while Stuff's team will likely be stronger in defense with a group of unexperienced attackers up front.
"We're gonna build from the back and try and have that be our strength," Stuff said. "I think that's gonna be the key to our success this year."
Other schools to keep an eye on in Monsignor Martin are Nichols, Timon and St. Francis, who are on the upswing after a 2016 turnaround.
One other note: Christian Central Academy will play 2017 in the MMA small-school division.
Other teams/players to watch: The only two teams to return All-WNY first-teamers are St. Joe’s with Frome and East Aurora with Schiltz. McKinley surprised folks around the league by beating some bigger names and return an All-WNY small-schooler in Shiabi. Expect Lackawanna and Allegany-Limestone to stay strong and possibly repeat as section champions since they both return an All-WNY small-schooler, Lackawanna bringing back Abdulhamid Albaneh and Allegany-Limestone returning Dylan Talbot.
Championship time: Section VI tournament begins Oct. 16. Section finals are Oct. 25-28 and Nov. 1. Far West Regionals matches take place Nov. 3 and 4, with state semifinals and finals on Nov. 11 and 12. Monsignor Martin final Nov 5, TBA. State Catholic final at TBA, TBA.