Cassie Bykowicz is a future Division I soccer player who has been making the best out of a frustrating situation.
It’d be easier for Bykowicz if she were on the field, dribbling around defenders and making life difficult for the competition. A torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last spring during the club season has kept her off the pitch in the playing capacity.
Instead, she’s doing the next best thing. She is trying to share her knowledge of the game and tactics with her Clarence teammates in a coaching capacity to help the Red Devils clear the one nagging hurdle that has prevented them from playing in the very last game of the season despite four straight runs to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Final Four.
Bykowicz, a defender/striker who has committed to University of Evansville (Ind.), has been assisting coach Dave Stephan on the sidelines in practice and on game days. She has been a sounding board about tactics to him while offering the perspective of a 17-year-old player to teammates of a similar age — something the coach can’t do.
As a result, Clarence (12-3-1) has secured the top seed for the Section VI Class AA Tournament. The Red Devils play their first match at 3:30 p.m. Friday against visiting Jamestown.
“I’m really glad she’s able to help out this way because she loves this game,” Stephan said. “She’s been great because this is more helpful for her teammates because she’s really stressed how much she misses playing and how she’d give anything to be on the field. I think she’s trying to relate to them, 'Don’t let this slip (opportunity) through your hands.' ”
The Clarence girls aren’t the only Red Devils looking to make another long playoff run in soccer. Clarence’s boys team, the two-time defending Section VI Class AA champion, is also a No. 1 seed in its tournament. It also opens the playoffs at home, hosting Jamestown at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
While each team supports one another, the girls are receiving aid from Bykowicz, who Stephan figured would contribute on the field and make a case for inclusion on the Coaches All-Western New York team.
"She's really a force," Stephan said. “She’s super technical, strong, fast, she sees the game. Even as a defender, she had 10 goals with us last year."
Senior Emma Faso, who leads the Red Devils with 20 goals, said Bykowicz has been super helpful.
“She can see what we can’t off the field and we can see what she can’t on the field, so it works,” Faso said.
“I’m just trying to keep pushing them as hard as I can,” Bykowicz said. “I’ve just been trying to offer my teammates my knowledge, help them see different situations.
“I know the competition we face and what it takes (to win). I just keep pushing (them). My teammates may not like what I say sometimes, but it comes from a good place. I will encourage them in a positive manner and try to be with them every step of the way.”
Though the Red Devils have lost thrice, one of the defeats qualifies as goofy. Their opener was cut short by a half due to weather so a 1-0 deficit turned into loss in the books. Their other two losses came to strong out-of-area teams in games Stephan hopes will provide the fuel for another lengthy postseason run.
It used to be that Section VI seasons ended in the regional round/state quarterfinals against Rochester-area Section V champions. Since area teams went 0-10 in the five classifications in regionals in 2006 and 2007, Buffalo area teams are 14-36. While the record is not great, half of those wins have come by Section VI champions in the two largest classifications (AA or A), a sign that the gap has shrunk. Three teams have reached a state final since 2013, with Holland (Class C) and Allegany-Limestone (last year in Class C) winning state titles. At least two area teams have reached the Final Four each of the past three seasons.
Clarence hopes to extend that run and then some. While Bykowicz’s on-field absence hurts, several veterans and younger players on the Red Devils have improved so that they remain a tough match-up. That includes Faso.
“Emma’s carrying the team offensively,” Stephan said. “She’s really tearing it up probably in the hardest league [ECIC I] in Western New York.”
While Faso has scored often, center midfielders Olivia Argentieri (seven goals), Hannah Rivett and Meg McCraith have helped the Red Devils control the game flow.
“We’re starting to peak right when we like it,” Stephan said. “We’re still hoping to win section again and see if we can get to states one more time.”
So, too, are the Clarence boys, who haven’t advanced beyond regionals since 2010.
The Red Devils (14-2) enter the postseason having lost two of their last three matches, including their last outing against Brighton of Section V.
“It’s good competition to see where we’re at (as a team),” Clarence boys soccer coach Mike Silverstein said. “We can see where our gaps are and try to fix them.”
The team got off to a great start that it received some national love from USA Today Super 25 poll in the past month, earning as high as a No. 4 ranking.
“We have a history of doing well so they put us there,” Silverstein said. “That national thing, that was a little crazy. I know some of those programs behind us, like St. Ignatius out of Ohio, they’re a perennial powerhouse that produces Division I players. For us to be ranked five spots ahead of them was a little entertaining.”
Clarence has been entertaining on the field, averaging 4.1 goals per game. Everything flows through center midfielder Ross Showalter (nine goals, five assists). Quinn Neelon (14 goals) is the finisher. Taha Ahmed is a dynamic playmaker (11 goals, eight assists).
-- In addition to Clarence soccer teams earning No. 1 seeds, the only other school in the area whose boys and girls teams earned No. 1 tournament seeds this season is East Aurora in Class B-1.
-- Here' s the list of 2017's Section VI champions in each classification. Girls: Clarence (AA), Grand Island (Class A), Newfane (B), Allegany-Limestone (C, state champion), North Collins (D). Boys: Clarence (Class AA), East Aurora (Class A), Lackawanna (Class B), Allegany-Limestone (Class C), Lafayette (Class D).