The Saugerties High varsity boys’ soccer team is at the midway point of the season, a time to reflect on what’s come and to use it over the stretch run in the hopes of making the playoffs. The team is 1-3-1 with five games remaining; it’s not a world-beating record, but thinking about the postseason is far from out of the question. Still, head coach Mike Riley prefers to break it down into smaller, more manageable goals.
“We look at it one half at a time,” Riley said. “We play organized for a half, and re-evaluate at halftime and make some tweaks. But it’s really about progress one half at a time.”
No one outside the grounds of the high school really gave the Sawyers much of a chance this season. They returned just two players from 2010, and many of the newest members of the team don’t have a lot of experience with a game that’s far more complex than it appears. According to Riley, the nuances of the beautiful game become more apparent to young players who don’t just step onto the pitch during the short fall high school season.
“Many of these kids are not full-year players, and the skills that it takes years to develop are tough to pull out in a short season,” Riley said. “Ultimately, it’s getting them to play when it’s not organized. That’s a sign of any good team. Turning the corner in any program is to get the kids playing when there’s no coach around.”
Still, Riley likes what he’s seen in his team, even – or possibly especially – during their losses.
“For a team that’s really young with only two returning players, and with kids who are learning the game who had never played soccer before, they’re responsive,” he said. “It’s a good sign.”
To their credit, the players on the team seem to know where they need to improve in order to win over the rest of the season.
“I think that if our team is able to work together and compete on a high level, we’ll have good chances to win games,” said Jeff Miron, a junior who starts at right fullback. “We are very good at absorbing opposing offensive attacks by opponents but our passing is not always perfect.”
It’s consistency, Riley said, that will get the Sawyers to where they need to be. That place, hopefully, is the playoffs.
Bryan Baulsir, a junior defenseman and part of a corps Riley said would be relied upon to help carry the team in the second half of the season, said he’s noticed the Sawyers’ improvement since the first game.
“I think we’re a solid team and we get better every week,” he said. “We are a very athletic team and our style frustrates the other team; but we’re (also) a young inexperienced team.”
The Sawyers’ lone win – so far, anyway – came in overtime against a tough Rondout Valley. Asked for a defining moment in the first half of the 2011 season, Miron pointed to that game in which the young Saugerties squad refused to back down, played to its strengths and showed they can get the job done. The key is to make that combination work from here on in.
“We’re battling, that’s for sure,” Riley said. “We’re in a tough division with games against Red Hook twice, FDR twice and Wallkill twice. FDR produces a factory for skill.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier from here on in, with five games remaining, all of which are against the league powerhouses Riley mentioned. Saugerties plays its next three at home against those teams, before closing out the regular season with mid-October games against FDR and Wallkill. With any luck, those will serve as tune-ups for the playoffs. The home game against Red Hook on Tuesday, October 11 in particular stands out for both Miron and Baulsir as being highly anticipated. The two teams battled in their prior meeting before Red Hook pulled away late.
With so many young players, it might be tempting for Riley to think of the Sawyers as a work in progress beyond 2011. Should many of this year’s players return next season, they’ll have one more year of soccer experience in their feet and minds, and should presumably be even better than they are now. But Riley went back to his one-half-at-a-time philosophy when asked the question.
“It’s my personality to look at what’s right in front of me,” he said. “You have in the back of your mind that next year could be really special, but you have to look at what’s in front of you.”