Like the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, results in the early going of Tehel Cup, the amateur soccer tournament comprising the top three divisions of Buffalo & District Soccer League teams, can be unexpected.
Last summer, second division side Great Lakes Africa upset premier's EA FC, while first division's West Side FC eliminated premier's Celtic United, all before the calendar turned from May to June.
As a result, favored clubs have taken notice, refusing to take lower-division sides lightly. On Thursday night at D'Youville College's Dobson Field, premier's Southtowns FPFC scored in the first 10 minutes and, despite some shaky moments, carved out an eventual 3-1 victory over championship division's Pendleton United.
Medaille College midfielder Matt Burke opened the scoring for Southtowns on a scrumptious half-volley in the seventh minute, with Phil Pinzone doubling the lead on the other side of halftime with an opportunistic smash from a loose ball in the 18-yard box.
Although Pendleton's Allan Wade gave the Lions life on a penalty kick following a Juan Camilo Villegas foul on Justin Bender, Southtowns' Kabura Elias put the match on ice by depositing a silky cross from Travis Hicks.
The trailing side nearly came within a goal again in the 82nd minute, but Southtowns goalkeeper Bill Littere absolutely robbed Evan Scales of a point-blank finish. While it's possible that Littere knew little about the shot, he was positioned perfectly to thwart the chance created by Justin Bender's well-weighted, low cross.
"That would have gotten hairy for sure [if Littere hadn't made the save]," Pinzone said. "He came up big. He's gotten so good at staying focused throughout the game - when we have a mental lapse, he's usually still there really focused."
The trio of Burke, Pinzone, Luis "Beto" Hernandez and Villegas set the tone in the central midfield, doing well to keep the ball and not force the issue. The Lions were forced to chase relentlessly to gain possession - or foul - expending energy a team with one healthy substitute couldn't afford.
"Our movement in the middle of the park was an advantage for us," affirmed Southtowns center back Will Smith, "and a weakness was probably finishing around the net."
Nick Dumond, the former Queenston FC forward and PUFC's top attacking threat, left the match after the game's first goal due to an injury and never returned. The midfield absences of Max Balko, an All-Western New York selection from Starpoint last fall, and Dan Mascaro were felt as well.
For Southtowns, which rolled through nine substitutes, the issue was more getting into a rhythm - even if some teammates appreciated the deep bench.
"A lot of our outside guys are rotating, and it's hard to get into the game when [they're] hopping in every 10 minutes," Pinzone explained. "It's something we're working on."
Even though Southtowns are far from a finished product, Thursday's cup win serves as a building block for a long season ahead.
FINAL WORD: On Southtowns' outlook in premier, Pinzone spoke of his expectations: "I think we can squeak out a playoff berth and surprise some people." SFPFC won their first league match of the season on Sunday, defeating Williamsville Willies, 2-0.
Southtowns FPFC: Bill Littere; Levi Bojang, Steve Fox, Will Smith, Troy Weber; Kabura Elias, Beto Hernandez, Phil Pinzone, Matt Burke, Sean MacLean; Shane Greene. Subs used: Austin Mathis, Andrew McDonagh, Colin Morrissey, Arstote Muangala, Matt Wilson, Travis Hicks, Dan Lapidus, Juan Camilo Villegas, Mike Taylor.
Pendleton United FC: Mike Juszczak; Tyler Valentine, Jake Graham, Nick Walker, Allan Wade; Jake Ratka, Sam Wagner, Marco Ciccarelli, Mike Wright; Nick Dumond, Evan Scales. Subs used: Ryan Schupp, Justin Bender.