SANBORN — Like a good Niagara County map, all roads lead to Sanborn, which is just the case this fall in Niagara Frontier League boys soccer.
At least on paper.
Defending Frontier Division and overall league-champion Kenmore East (11-2 in 2018) has lost several key starters to graduation, including NFL Player of the Year Kyle Hofschneider, who was among four senior NFL First Team All-Stars to graduate.
At the same time, NFL runner-up and last year's Niagara Division champ Niagara-Wheatfield (11-1) returns eight starters, including seven all-stars, led by senior forward Jacob Vallas. Falcons veteran head coach John Coulter is hoping his team will rebound in a big way from last year's narrow, 2-1 crossover loss to the Bulldogs, which gave the North Buffalo school the 2018 NFL title.
But despite everything on paper, Coulter isn't one who subscribes to those, “Well, you're obviously the favorite” lines reporters throw at him. Coulter knows better and the importance of taking things one game at a time, especially with this promising group.
“I think we'll have to win every game. We're not going to take anyone for granted,” Coulter said on Sunday. The Falcons will open their 2019 NFL regular season at 4:45 p.m. today at Lockport.
“We just have to go out there and give our best effort every game,” Coulter said, while describing his four-year starter Vallas as, “pretty fast and a good finisher,” adding that he will likely rotate the versatile senior to several different positions throughout the season.
Among other top returners this year for N-W are First Team NFL all-star center midfielder Ralph Wence and defender Austin Osetkowski, along with NFL Second Team all-stars, midfielder John Osetkowski and defender Joe Wroniecki.
Of Wence, coach Coulter said, “He's probably the best feet ever I coached, incredible touch on the ball, great vision and a knack for making guys miss.”
Also back at N-W is Third Team all-star forward Andrew Ramballi. In goal for the Falcons this fall is promising sophomore Josh Morelli, described by Coulter as, “ridiculously quick with super quick reflexes.”
Rounding out the NFL Niagara Division for boys soccer:
• LOCKPORT (Last Year 5-6-1): Head coach — (NFL chairman) Jeff Hulshoff, key losses — F Andrew Putman, MF Quinn Boyer, MF Connor Kwoka, G Matin Mayberry, key returners — Carson Tatro (inj.), MF Anthony Haak, MF Reilly Boyer, D Joe Tedesco, F Sean Glenn, Shannon Richardson, Mike Molinaro, Anthony Molinaro
• NIAGARA FALLS (Last year 5-7): Head coach — Tony Kutis, key losses — MF Zak Meranto, F Mike Ranieri. D Joe White, D Aiden Biggins, key returners —
• N. TONAWANDA (Last year 4-7-1): Head coach — Rob Brockelhurst, key losses — F Colin Archibald, D Casey Trombley, MF Vincent Chiodo, D Colin Parlier , key returners — F Tyler McNeil,
• KEN WEST (Last year 2-8-1): Head coach — (VI chairman) Todd Marquardt, key losses — G Anthony Stanz, MF Val Mawi, MF Sang Chin, D Trey Wojnar
Rounding out the NFL Frontier Division for boys soccer:
• KEN EAST (Last year 11-2): Head coach — Rolfe Freidenberg, key losses — F Kyle Hofschneider, F Zachary Maranto, MF Michael O'Connor, D Frank Schmoyer, MF John O'Connell, key returners — D Anthony Kowalski.
• LEW-PORT (Last year 8-2-1): Head coach — Rick Sweeney, key losses — MF Jake Westadt, D Zach Clayborne, D Tanner Reisman, MF William Quarantello, MF Markus Johansson, key returners — F Joe Zachary, F Joe Beatty, F Robert Mele, F Robert Woods
• GR. ISLAND (Last year 5-6): Head coach — Frank Butcher, key losses — key returners
• CSAT (Last year 0-11): Head coach — Nick Coronado (first year), key returners — F Suleymane Diallo, F Mojtaba Afzali, MF Christ Kahuka
Starpoint seeks climb
PENDLETON — Finishing in a crowded midfield pack a year ago, Starpoint head coach Zach Trunzo's boys soccer Spartans are looking to make a run at the Williamsville schools for the top spot this year in the Erie County Interscholastic Conference's Division 2.
The Spartans finished 6-10 last season, led by graduated all-star keeper Adam Rankie. The good news is that the Spartans return a number of quality players, including midfielder Riley Wagner, a potential all-Western New York player; along with forward Jake Dickey and midfielder Jerry Krentz.
Joining Starpoint in the ECIC Div. 2 for boys soccer are defending division-champion Williamsville East, as well as Williamsville South, Sweet Home, Hamburg, Amherst and West Seneca East.
Starpoint will open its 2019 ECIC Div. 2 season at 5 p.m. Wednesday against visiting Hamburg. Trunzo said the two teams to beat this year are Will East and Will South.
“I think we can contend. We have a lot of quality players coming back,” Trunzo said.
“We're just going to try to be tough and keep them all healthy. We're not as deep as we'd like, but I think we can make a run for it. We definitely have guys who can put up goals and defend.”
Starpoint's starting keeper is junior Dominic Grandinetti.
The Wilson Lakemen (7-2-1) will begin defense of their 2018 Niagara-Orleans League title at home next week against Roy-Hart (5-4-1), which finished in the middle of the pack last year.
But Lakemen head coach Jeff Hart said things won't be easy this year with double digit graduations last spring and the year before — 23 in the last two years up by the lake.
Among Wilson's key losses to graduation in 2019 are All-Western New York goalie and N-O Player of the Year goalie Ralph Grizanti, whose goals against record in the league was well under 1.00. To make matters worse, they've also lost their leading scorer at the other end, Taylor Carmer.
The good news is there's still experience coming back with returning First Team all-star defender senior captain Marcus Schwartzmueller.
Wilson also features youth with sophomores Patrick Hemming and Owen Cloy expected to do big things.
The team to beat this year, Hart said, is Albion, which finished second last year and returns, “a lot of fire power, as well Roy-Hart.
Returning Roy-Hart players include their leading scorer last year (10 goals), potential all-Western New York senior forward Aidan Bligh, as well as forward Noah Hardy, midfielders Matt Scott and Brendan Saia; defenders Clayton Keyes and Dom Perracciny. The Rams' keeper is Colby Hancock.
Roy-Hart is coached by Greg Martillotta.
In Newfane, the Panthers boys soccer team will feature a new coach, Iroquois grad Maria Taylor.
Key returners for the Panthers include center mid Trevor Heschke, along with seven key senior returning starters.
The Newfane keeper is Brady Harrington, last year's JV keeper.
Follow veteran US&J sports reporter/editor John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'Onofrio7.