Several GLOW region football players were forced to move from the gridiron to the pitch this fall, making the most out of their circumstances, and then some. Many local teams enjoyed the services of football players and rode their contributions to successful campaigns.
In Attica, the Blue Devils’ boys soccer team not only saw an influx of new players, but they also had a boatload of talent injected into their lineup - including All-State linebacker Zach Strzelec.
Last fall, Strzelec was a member of the New York State Sportswriter Association’s third-team for his efforts on the football field. Strzelec led the Blue Devils gridders to the Class C semifinal with 1,354 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns while also leading the team with 102 tackles. With football postponed until the spring, Strzelec chose to take his talents to the soccer field.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it was going to be fun because I was with my buddies,” said Strzelec about his decision to join the soccer team. “I definitely got better as the season went on, and it was a lot of fun.”
Strzelec didn’t record a goal nor an assist this season, but his contribution to Attica’s first GR Division title in decades was undeniable. As a midfielder, on several occasions, the Devils tasked Strzelec with shutting down the opposing team’s best players, something he was often asked to do as a linebacker.
“I think (my experience in football) did help a lot,” said Strzelec. “If I wasn’t as good as I was at football, I don’t think I would’ve been as good as I was at soccer. There are a lot of fast people out there that can haul around, so my experience playing linebacker tracking down running backs and quarterbacks definitely helped a lot.”
For Attica head coach John Dickhut, Strzelec, and the other football players who joined the soccer team this fall were a blessing.
“The biggest thing that they’ve added to our team is that they bring a tremendous amount of energy on the bench,” said Dickhut. “They are used to celebrating tackles, runs, passes, and otherwise during a football game, and they do the same thing during our soccer games. Anyone who has attended our games would definitely remember our bench.”
This season Dickhut experienced what Attica football coach Caleb Sabatino has experienced for his three-year tenure on the sidelines. Both of Strzelec’s varsity seasons were played under Sabatino, as the duo helped the Blue Devils compile a 15-4 record during that span, including a trip to the Class C Final in ‘18 and the ‘C’ Semifinal last season.
“Zach is an integral part of our football team. His fingerprints are all over the success we’ve had the past two seasons,” said Sabatino. “When I heard he was going to play soccer, I was very excited for him and for the other football guys that gave it a try.”
Along with Strzelec, seniors Drew Cusmano and Ian Romesser, as well as juniors Andrew Newell and Konnor Schroeder, also came over from the football team. They helped Attica to a GR League Title and an overall record of 8-4-2.
The team Attica fell to in the ‘18 Class C football final, the Letchworth/Warsaw gridders are coming off back-to-back sectional titles and saw a number of its athletes take on the challenge of trying a new sport this fall. In total, five LetSaw football players joined the soccer team, including seniors Eddie Stores, Kolby Van Slyke, and Hunter Elliott, who contributed a combined three goals and an assist on the season.
“This year was unusual, to say the least, but one positive to take away from this season was coaching a few new players who I rarely have contact with,” said LetSaw United boys soccer coach Tim Eustace. “Each of them brought something different to the team, but what they all added was energy and athleticism.”
United finished the season 6-6 and wound up missing the sectional tournament due to concerns over COVID-19, but enjoyed their share of success, partially due to the addition of some new blood. All three seniors who came over from the football team earned starting roles with the soccer team this year.
“They all had soccer experience to some degree, so picking back up was something that came easy. All of them were important to our team in their own way,” added Eustace. “Soccer was an opportunity for them to compete at a high level, stay in shape, and most importantly, build relationships with their friends. Each one of them had the right approach towards the season, and they were quickly accepted by their teammates.”
While they sit and wait for what they hope will be a spring season, LetSaw football coach Justin Mann says it was nice to see his guys take advantage of a difficult situation.
“I was very excited for them to go play soccer,” said Mann. “It gave them an opportunity to go out and compete with their friends, keep in shape, and a chance to contribute to a great soccer program.”
The school LetSaw beat in last year’s Class C football final, Le Roy also missed out on a chance at this year’s Section V Boys Soccer tournament, finishing the season a disappointing 4-6-1 and without an opportunity to end the season strong. The Knights split two regular-season games against United, and there was a chance the two could have met again in the postseason.
Although their season came to an abrupt halt, Knights’ senior Alex Panepento, another football player turned soccer player this fall, was glad to be back on the field - any field - this fall. Panepento finished the season with just one assist but was a strong defender for the Knights.
“I think we brought a type of physicality to the team and more aggressiveness,” said Panepento about him and the other football players who joined the Knights’ boys soccer squad. “Being back on the field definitely brought the competitiveness back in me.”
Knights’ football coach Brian Herdlein says he wasn’t surprised how much Panepento and his other football guys influenced the soccer team.
“Alex is a high IQ athlete with a competitive fire in anything that he is doing,” said Herdlein. “We will be leaning on him a ton this spring from a leadership standpoint as well as performing on the field.”
For Le Roy soccer coach Bob Hammer, although he enjoyed coaching new players, it was difficult for him to watch his student-athletes miss out on their regular sport in the fall.
“Hopefully, they will get a chance to bring some of the new skills they learned from soccer when they return to the football field in March,” said Hammer.
Panepento concurred with Hammer.
“I just hope we have a football season,” said the Knights’ senior.
That was a common sentiment uttered by many of those who went from the gridiron to the pitch this fall, including Avon juniors Adam Mariani and Andrew Rowland, who helped the Braves’ boys soccer team to a 10-3 mark this season. Mariani finished with an assist as an impactful forward, while Rowland was one of the team’s top defenders.
“I found out that there was no football in the summer sometime, and I was pretty disappointed because everyone had been working really hard,” said Mariani. “I’m excited, and I think it could be good having it in the spring. It’s something different.”
The Braves’ football team finished last season 3-5 and was hoping for more this fall, but Rowland says he and his teammates are still holding out hope they’ll be able to accomplish their goals this spring.
“Hopefully, they’re able to do something for basketball, and definitely I’m looking forward to football and baseball as well,” said the Avon junior.
Elsewhere in the Livingston Conference, the defending Class B champion Livonia Bulldogs were getting set to make a jump down to Class C this season, where many expected them to be significant favorites for a second-straight sectional crown. While they weren’t able to defend their football title, several Bulldogs’ players wouldn’t allow the COVID-19 virus from stopping them from claiming championship glory this fall.
Instead, many former gridders made the jump to the Livonia boys soccer team, which made a run to its 13th title in program history.
Senior Gabe Gammon, as well as junior defenders Jake Watkins and Matt Connor, contributed to the ‘Dogs’ championship squad. Watkins netted five tallies and chipped in three assists, while Gammon scored a goal and chipped in an assist, and Connor added an assist while providing strong defense on the back end.
“Being great competitors, who thrive on hard work and toughness, it was no surprise that they played key roles in helping the Bulldogs win another title,” said Livonia football coach John Gammon about his players.
“The boys were great, very coachable, they never missed a practice, they fit in nicely,” added Livonia boys soccer coach Ray Maxwell. “We had a very nice group of boys. You never know what’s going to happen when you bring in boys from other sports, and they just blended in great.”
Like many football players turned soccer players, although it was nice to enjoy their team’s success this fall, it wasn’t the same as being back on the gridiron. But despite their disappointment, these athletes didn’t let the challenging circumstances define their high school experience.
“I’m a football guy, but I like to play soccer too,” said Watkins. “Some people are like ‘football is so much better than soccer’, but they’re both fun.”
“You just gotta try it - you never know what will happen. Take me back six months ago, and I never thought I would be kicking around a soccer ball,” added Connor, advising other athletes. “Just try it. You never know what could happen.”
A few others who moved from football to soccer this season include Medina senior Brian Fry, along with Dansville senior trio Billy Barrett, Ryan Carnevele, and Cameron Cartwright.
Medina’s Fry has been a three-sport varsity starter since middle school and committed to play Div. I baseball at the University of Toledo. Even someone with Fry’s athletic prowess, making the transition from one sport to another, was anything but seamless.
“Even an athlete of Brian’s caliber didn’t just walk onto a soccer field and dominate,” said Steven Luksch, coach of the co-sectional champion Lyndonville/Medina boys soccer team. “Soccer is a tough sport, and Brian experienced that on the first day of tryouts. But to his credit, he asked a ton of questions and did all the little things to catch the coaches’ eyes.”
In the eyes of Medina football coach Eric Valley, Fry’s work ethic allowed him to become a contributor for the soccer team this fall.
“Brian is one of the most complete football players and all-around athletes I have ever coached,” said Valley. “He has never missed or been late for a practice and wants to compete at a high level in everything he does and puts the work in 12 months out of the year.”
A supreme work ethic and love for one’s school is what allowed these athletes to do for one team this fall, what they did for another last fall. For some, it may be difficult to muster up the excitement for a season after seeing your primary sport postponed. But not for these athletes, whose love for school and sport trumped the discouragement that came with the football season’s postponement.
“These kids bleed Dansville through and through,” said Dansville boys soccer coach Steve French about his senior trio. “They’ve played their whole lives for Dansville.”
“These are players that will give everything they have to the team,” added Dansville football coach Rich Welch.
The courage, hard work, and dedication to one’s school that each of these athletes showed this fall to make their experience successful were commendable.
Although this fall season was most unconventional, the long-term impact of these athletes’ experience and what they did to make that experience successful is sure to serve them well years into the future.
Again, another example of why our athletes need high school sports this winter.