By Will LeBlond
The Ithaca High boys soccer team has developed their program into a powerhouse with consistent postseason success, but they want to take it to the next level this fall.
Their success locally is well known, given that the Little Red is the four-time defending Class AA Section IV champion, including a 1-0 win over Horseheads in the title game in Oneonta last year. Unfortunately in 2016, Ithaca ran into the buzzsaw that was New Rochelle in the New York State Sub-Regional game, and after the Huguenots beat Ithaca 3-0, they went on to claim the state championship a few weeks later.
A state title has eluded the Little Red for quite a while now, as the team has not been to the top of the mountain since 1978. Now, with a deep roster that has more than a dozen seniors, and plenty of offensive firepower and defensive stoppers, the 2017 edition of the team looks primed for a run.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure we have a team and not just a group of players,” said head coach Gilbert Antoine on how he has developed his squad this fall. “When you have a team, the players really know one another and they know what to do.”
The team has gelled well together, which started right at the beginning of the season. Ithaca came roaring out of the gates when they started 5-0, which included them outscoring their opponents by a combined total of 28-0. They had a couple hiccups after that, which included two losses, but both of them were to state-ranked teams in Elmira and Vestal. Even in defeat, Antoine thinks that his team has matured through it.
“We’ve grown a bit,” said Antoine. “One of the things I always say is that a loss is a lesson. It’s how you gain experience. So now, when we’re behind, we know how to come back.”
When the regular season concluded on October 6 with a 3-1 win on the road against Owego, the Little Red had scored 53 goals with just seven goals against in their 13 games. On the offensive side of the ball, seniors Mason Todhunter and Roberto Mier have been a potent punch, and classmates Andrea Lambrou and Max Chang have filled out the scoring depth to give Ithaca plenty of weapons.
On the other side of the field, with nine shutout victories during the course of the season, the defense has been the steady backbone of this year’s squad.
“Part of it is the way our defenders play. We play in a way where we rotate really well, we’re a quick transition team and we move the ball really well,” said Antoine. “The guys connect with each other very well. Plus, we have an excellent goalie. Brian Conuel plays very well. He is very active and he has good mechanics when he’s in the goal.”
Conuel replaced Kevin Klaben, who was the star senior keeper on the Little Red last year, but the trend of filling in roster spots is nothing new for Ithaca. The Little Red graduated 11 seniors in 2016 and haven’t missed a beat thanks to a roster that has found ways to gain experience over the years.
“Whenever we’re winning, I try to get the younger players in the game to play with the more experienced players,” said Antoine. “That way we can develop their skills and have them ready for next year.”
With postseason play now on the horizon, competition will get stiffer and the veteran Ithaca roster is ready to roll with the mindset of wanting to make a deep run.
“One of the best things we can do is be positive and take everyone seriously,” said Antoine. “Each game we have to make sure that we’re well focused and we know what we have to do to deliver.”
Sectional play is expected to begin this week for the team, as they begin their hunt for a fifth straight Class AA Section IV championship.