The state tournament was well within reach last year for the Ithaca boys soccer team. The Little Red’s sectional finals against Horseheads went all the way through overtime to penalty kicks, and Ithaca came up short.
This season has been another special one for the Little Red. They have a 12-2-1 record and go into Wednesday’s semifinal match against Corning as the top seed in the Section IV Class AA bracket. This matchup occurred in the first round of last year’s sectional tournament too, with Ithaca moving on to the finals following a 1-0 victory.
In preparation for this year’s tournament, head coach Gilbert Antoine was seen participating in an intrasquad scrimmage alongside his players. Being on the field with his team rather than the sidelines allowed Antoine to “see exactly what [his] players are doing.”
“It’s good to be out there playing with them because when you are on the field, it is quite different,” Antoine said. “For example, there are some players that I’m looking at that I’m playing with, and I notice they’re not even looking up to see who they are surrounded by.”
That’s just one of several things Antoine planned on addressing heading into the playoffs, and seeing things from a player’s perspective allowed him to be aware of it in the first place. Letting shots fly is another area in which Antoine sees room to grow for the team.
Ithaca has won its past three meetings with Corning, defeating the Hawks 3-2 and 2-0 this season. Despite their success against the Hawks, Antoine knows that history does not matter in the playoffs.
“Playing Corning, it’s not going to be an easy game because we have played them twice, and both times we have beaten them,” Antoine said. “This is a whole different game, different structure. It’s not the same team we’re going to face. So, I think we have to come out stronger and more disciplined because they know how to play. … I think it’s going to be a very tight, close game.”
What makes this team special in Antoine’s opinion is the lack of a superstar.
The entire team is a well-oiled machine receiving contributions from many different players. The Little Red worked together to win their first Southern Tier Athletic Conference (STAC) Championship since 2015 with a 1-0 victory over Oneonta on Oct. 17. Flynn McCarthy knocked home the game-winner with 11 minutes left off an assist from Terry Paw.
To reach the league finals, Ithaca took down a tough Maine-Endwell team in penalty kicks. Both Maine-Endwell and Oneonta are ranked in the state’s top 10 by the New York State Sportswriters Association at the Class A and B levels, respectively. Earning two wins over teams of that caliber gives Ithaca a ton of confidence heading into sectionals.
“It’s a confidence boost for us because we know that since we beat the two biggest teams out here, that our team is on top and we’re trying to stay on top,” Paw said. “Every other school thinks we’re the powerhouse. We’re trying to maintain that even though it’s a big burden. We’re still trying to keep our cool and our composure during every game and try to fight through it.”
Winning in penalty kicks over Maine-Endwell was also a big deal, considering its postseason run ended with penalty kicks last year.
“The penalty kicks were very hard because all of us were scared. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Paw said. “We all know it’s a 50-50 chance that we might go home, or we might win. By winning [against Maine-Endwell], we got a big confidence boost. We know that we can take anyone on after that. Our team is very strong, and we can overcome that.”
Junior Isaac Borden added that the team’s strong mindset will lead to success in sectionals considering the high level of competition.
“They all gave us a run for our money, and every team in sectionals is going to do the same,” Borden said. “We just have to go into this with the same, ‘we have to do this, we have to win’ mentality, and I think we should come out on top.”
As previously mentioned, Antoine reiterated that the variety of options on offense will make this team hard to stop in the postseason.
“It’s not just Ehler [Somya Soe] and Terry [Paw] together,” Antoine said. “It’s a combination of every single one of those guys. We don’t have to rely on one particular player to score for us. We have anyone that can score on this field.”
Everything is coming together for Ithaca following two huge wins in its league playoffs. Now the Little Red will look to make that next step to the state tournament that narrowly eluded them last season.
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