— After making the Catholic League soccer playoffs a year ago, Judge and Ryan are back at it — with a few key injuries.
In any sport, being good on paper is always a dangerous thing. Just ask the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, or this year’s version of the Phillies. Injuries or other unforeseen factors can affect — or completely derail — a season once the games start playing out.
John Dunlop understands this, and he better, because he’s just started living it.
Dunlop, the head coach of the Father Judge soccer team, enjoyed his offseason knowing his Crusader squad would be one of the top groups in the Catholic League, especially with senior captains Justin Hiltwine and Stephen Smeck due to return. Hartwine, a forward, was poised to make a run for league MVP, while Smeck, a back, would be the central figure of the Judge defense. Dunlop hoped to ride both to a title and continue on the recent string of soccer success at the school, which included an appearance in last year’s Catholic League championship, where Judge fell to LaSalle in overtime.
Then came those aforementioned unforeseen obstacles. Hartwine and Smeck both suffered season-ending knee injuries in the past few weeks, leaving Judge with two inactive captains and a lot of questions to answer.
“First we lost Justin, then the next week it was Stephen,” Dunlop said. “We came out of camp saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ When the Phillies lost Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, the team asked other guys to step up, which creates pressure. Some couldn’t handle it. I’m not saying my guys can’t handle it, but we’re grinding it out. We aren’t handling it great right now, but it’s a time thing.
“On paper coming into the season, I think we were the top team, talent-wise,” he continued. “Now, we’re in the middle of the pack with everyone else, which is fine. We’re going to have to earn it now.”
So far, the results have been mixed. Judge won its season opener, a 5-1 decision over Springfield. Then came a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Parkland, an Allentown-based school that Dunlop said was ranked in the top 20 nationally. Last Thursday, the Crusaders fell behind 2-0 to Holy Ghost at halftime, staged a furious second half rally to tie the score late in regulation, then fell 3-2 in double overtime. The following day, they shellacked Cardinal O’Hara, 5-0, so Dunlop isn’t quite sure what to expect as the season progresses, but he hopes to figure it out in the weeks to come. (Judge will travel to neighborhood rival Archbishop Ryan on Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. for a highly-anticipated match-up.)
NO EASY FIX
“Stephen was our heart and soul back there, he really kept guys organized,” Dunlop said. “And Justin is a Division I scholarship player and one of the top talents in Southeastern Pa. Now, we have to kind of re-create our system and figure out the roles of other guys, some of who haven’t started on varsity before. For us, it’s going to be a matter of limiting our mistakes and turnovers and being the smartest team on the field.”
Stepping into an immediate contributor’s role will be George Washington transfer Mohamed Conde, who was the Northeast Times’ sportsman of the year last season. Conde, craving a larger role on offense, transferred to Judge, and he will certainly get his opportunities to shine up front. Senior Vontez Hilliard will be expected to score up top, while his twin brother, Vontae, will step in as the team’s sweeper and will be flanked by Matt Matwiejczyk and Joey Malvestuto on the back line. Midfielder Kevin Lockhart, whom Dunlop called one of the team’s best players, will be a “floater” utilized at all positions. Andrew Smeck, another twin brother on the Judge roster, will serve a similar role, while Ryan Nork and Joey Hansen round out the midfield. In goal, the Crusaders will use both senior Dylan Trush and junior Dan Sulpizio until one of them grabs hold of the starting job.
Learning on the fly was not Dunlop’s plan coming in, but as the coach found out, plans often change, forcing teams to adapt.
“I do think this is a good team,” Dunlop said. “We just have to limit mistakes. It’s coming in pieces, which is a hard way to play in the Catholic League, where there’s never a night off. But facing adversity with more playing time is only going to benefit these guys, and we plan on working it out, knocking out the kinks and putting it together in time for a playoff run.”
GEORGE KNOWS BEST
Meanwhile, over on Academy Road, Judge’s chief rival is sorting out some injury issues of their own.
George Todt is entering his 44th season as boys’ soccer coach at Archbishop Ryan. Todt, the winningest boys’ soccer coach in Pennsylvania and sixth-winningest coach nationally, has also served as the school’s athletic director for the past 40 years. Anyone who has a field named in his or her honor, as Todt does, has seen and heard it all, so nothing surprises him at this point. He knows that making preseason predictions is an arbitrary act, as the late-season “one goal” Catholic League games can go in either direction. Having been the soccer coach at Ryan since he graduated from college in 1969, Todt tries to look at key injuries with a glass half-full approach.
“Everything translates to opportunity out there on the field,” Todt said, while watching his team practice on Monday afternoon. “Injuries allow for other guys to step in and see what they can do. Because we haven’t played too many games yet, kids will get opportunities to shine and strengths and weaknesses will be exposed as we go. It’s all about finding a mixture that works, and we still have another couple of weeks to do that.”
Just like Judge, Ryan has lost two key players to serious knee injuries in senior striker Brett Beaumont (a returning All-Catholic selection) and junior midfielder Sam Bathurst. Fortunately for the Raiders, these injuries happened back in the spring, so they should get both guys back this season, whereas Judge won’t be as lucky.
At press time, the Raiders were 1-1 and still feeling things out as a unit. Todt said the team has three capable goaltenders, with the main battle brewing between senior Marcus Otto and junior Jared Ott. Otto is the incumbent but is being pushed hard by Ott, and Ryan also has talented sophomore J.T. Boyle, if needed. The captains are seniors Kevin Galm and Jimmy Smith, both returning starters. Ryan lost three starters to graduation, and Todt hopes players like seniors Jim Feeley and Kyle Moyta and junior Marco Cavallo can be in the rotation at midfield and on defense.
The team has three dangerous strikers in sophomore Michael Kirby and seniors Michael Usher and Miguel Rendon, while freshman Chris Schlegel and sophomore Joe Stock will be in the mix as well. So despite the key injuries, the Raiders are deep, which should allow them to stay in the thick of things in league play and be in the mix come the playoffs, which Ryan hosts at the school. (The Raiders were eliminated by St. Joseph’s Prep in last season’s quarterfinals, but hope to advance further in 2012 to win Todt his 14th league title.)
“Really, anyone can beat anyone, which has been the history of the league,” Todt said. “We’ve all won championships, and we’ll be fighting each other all season until the final whistle blows. The competition is what makes it so good, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.”
So is it the fierce competition what keeps Todt coming back year after year?
“I always say ‘one more year,’” Todt said. “But nobody believes me because I’ve been saying that the last 15 years. Look, this is what I do and who I am. I believe in the tradition of Ryan soccer, and Catholic League soccer has been my life. That’s what I’m all about.” ••
The boys Public League soccer preview will be posted Thursday at www.bsmphilly.com/sports. Check back in next week’s edition for a comprehensive look at the Northeast Philly girls soccer landscape.