In a few days, or weeks maybe, members of the East Hampton boys soccer team and the coaching staff will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they look back on the 2014 season.
They admitted that on Sunday afternoon—but it was clear it wasn’t any kind of consolation, not yet.
The emotion was visible and raw for the Bonackers at Middletown High School as snowflakes started falling just after noon on Sunday, minutes after a 4-2 loss to Greece Athena (Section V-Western New York) in the New York State Class A Championship. The Bonackers and head coach Rich King had been clear all season long about their goals—they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a state championship. And why would they be? The Bonackers were the top-ranked Class A team in the state for much of the season, and came into the state championship, on the heels of a dominant 3-0 win over Jamesville DeWitt in the semifinals, with a 19-1-2 record, their only loss coming against nationally-ranked Catholic powerhouse St. Anthony’s.
Unfortunately, they also came into the most important game of the season without their best player, leading scorer Nick West. The senior midfielder, who has been the heart and soul of the team all year, broke his foot in the first half against Jamesville DeWitt, after scoring his team’s first two goals in that win. Without his commanding presence in the midfield, East Hampton did not dictate the tempo of play like it typically does.
King stopped short of saying that West’s absence was the reason his team lost, but he admitted it was a factor.
“Obviously he’s a difference-maker,” he said. “He’s our motor. But I thought our kids gave the effort that they had in them to give. It just didn’t work out for us.”
Still, the Bonackers were not outclassed by the Trojans (16-6-1). Greece got on the board first when junior Zack Koons scored on a cross with 33:21 left in the first half, but the Bonackers equalized when senior Esteban Valverde scored a beauty, beating two defenders down the right sideline before lofting a perfectly placed shot just over the goalie’s head and just under the crossbar with 22 minutes left in the first half. The Trojans took a 2-1 lead, one they would not relinquish, with 13:42 left in the first half, when a foul by East Hampton gave them a golden scoring opportunity on a direct kick from just outside the box. Jason Siracuse buried it into the upper right corner to give his team the halftime lead.
Greece went up 3-1 with a goal by R.J. Nichol, who headed in a corner kick by teammate Nick Messmer with 23:17 left. East Hampton cut it to 3-2 when Henry Pillco scored with 13:07 left, collecting the rebound of a direct kick from Bryan Oreamuno. Greece snuffed out East Hampton’s momentum, however, when Nichol scored with 10:29 left.
Nick Tulp made eight saves for East Hampton, finishing the season with 13 shutouts. He was named as the MVP of the game by the East Hampton coaching staff. West, who will play at Division III powerhouse Messiah College next year, finished with 25 goals in his senior season.
East Hampton graduates 14 seniors, several of whom are four-year varsity players. West and Valverde are four-year starters. King summed up his feelings for those players, many of whom have been playing together for a decade or more.
“I love them,” he said. “They’ve known each other since they were 4, 5, 6 years old. They’re best friends, and it’s the most special group I’ve coached.”
To say emotions were mixed after the game would be an understatement. If the Bonackers had lost to a clearly superior team, and if they’d been at full strength, perhaps the defeat would have been easier to take. Neither was the case on Sunday.
“I think we’re the better team, but they deserved to win today, so credit to them,” King said of Greece. “We didn’t play our best soccer for many different reasons. I thought we did a good job after they scored a great goal, to equalize. The free kick, that’s a tough one in a state final. But we have to take it on the chin and move on.”
Of course, there won’t be any moving on, at least at the high school level, for the 14 seniors. With tears in his eyes, Valverde—who is hoping to play at C.W. Post next year—spoke after the game about what the team accomplished and what the season meant to him. The dynamic player missed most of the season after breaking his collarbone in September, and for a while, he wasn’t sure if he’d play in a Bonac uniform again.
“If you had asked me six weeks ago if I was going to score in the last game of my high school career, I wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought I was done when they said my collarbone was broken. But the team made it far enough so I could come back and play, so thank you to them.”
Valverde and King also spoke about the support of the East Hampton school and community at large. Two spectator buses made the long drive from eastern Long Island to Middletown to support the team, showing up in much larger numbers than the fans from their opposing squads.
“The support has been tremendous, not only here but with text messages and phone calls from back home in the past three weeks,” King said.
“It’s a great community,” Valverde said. “It couldn’t be better.”
Bonac boys soccer certainly gave the fans plenty to cheer about, not just this year, but for the past several seasons. It was clear, in Middletown, that the transformation that has occurred in the program over the past decade—from a bottom feeder in League VI to a Class A powerhouse—is complete.
“We’ve worked really hard to change the culture and I think we’ve been successful,” King said. “We’ve won three county championships, one Long Island championship, a berth in the state final. When you look at it overall, it’s very gratifying, but right now we’re not happy.
“But the state of the program is good,” he continued. “And the kids bought into what we were selling them. I couldn’t be prouder of all the kids who have come through the program since I’ve been head coach.”