Levandowski Leads Cards To Long-Awaited Sectional Title

Taking the first seven games of the 2018 soccer season as a sample size, it is not an overstatement to say that things were bleak for the Randolph Cardinals. That early stretch of the year included one win, five losses, a tie and four total goals scored.

“You don’t want to be to cliche, but those things are definitely character builders,” said Cardinals coach Dave Levandowski. “As a coach, you find out what you are made of.”

It would not become clear until much later in the year — around the middle of October — just what exactly Levandowski’s team had discovered about itself.

While Randolph began the autumn having a difficult time scoring goals and developing the chemistry of its roster, its players focused on what they knew would always be important–stopping opposing offenses.

Bend, but never break would be the lesson learned early that carried the team through when it mattered most.

Strong teams can score all the goals they like during the regular season, but if you can’t keep the ball out of your own net at the end of the year you are going nowhere against teams with talented strikers. That defensive focus may have been the source of some headaches early on, but in the end it is what carried Randolph through to its first Section VI Class C final since 1989.

That championship came via a 2-1 win over the high-octane offense of Maple Grove at Tonawanda High School on Oct. 26, and in many ways serves as the perfect metaphor for the Cardinals 10-9-1 campaign.

“I thought we played very responsible at every spot,” Levandowski said of that win. “They are a high-powered offense and their defense is stout. Going into that game we had scrimmaged them and they took it to us. Going into that game one of the big things was to be responsible, to know what you need to do in every scenario.”

When the Cardinals relinquished an early goal to dominant forward Caleb Foley in the 37th minute, his 26th of the year, they never panicked.

Having survived such a difficult stretch to begin the season, Levandowski’s team knew that if it made the most of its chances to come everything would work out.

Early in the first half, penalty kick specialist Hayden Congdon earned his first goal of the year following a costly handball inside the box to pull the Cardinals back to even.

When Kaleb Steward struck the game winner with 12:32 remaining in regulation, that ball made its way past goaltender Sam Cummings on a deflection.

The Cardinals combined those fortunate opportunities with what has been their team identity for years and years — a defense that is going to wear you down.

“Our players take a lot of pride in being able to shut teams down,” said Levandowski. “One of Randolph’s soccer traits is being hard to play against. I think that maybe one of the biggest things was that the guys needed to trust me. I was preaching the same thing over and over again– be patient and the goals will show up. I think that chemistry and trust were some of the biggest (goals), and the kids bought into some of the things we were trying to do collectively.”

Having a team strategy is one thing, but Randolph would not have been able to right the ship late in the season without the leadership exemplified by leaders like Steward and goaltender Jacob Bulich.

“He really spearheaded that whole idea of hanging together. He was more of the vocal outspoken leadership that we needed,” Levandowski said of Bulich, who rode a five-game shutout streak before relinquishing the goal to Foley at Tonawanda.

“Kaleb is very reserved. He’s not going to scream and yell and get in people’s faces but he brings a competitive effort to everything.”

After helping Randolph pick up its first outright sectional title in nearly three decades and moving on to face Geneseo in Far West Regional Play, Levandowski received an outpouring of support from community members and former players.

The good news for them is that 26 of Randolph’s 31 goals this past year were scored by returning players. While defensive stalwarts like Bulich, Congdon, Evan Graham and Carter Peet will walk across the stage in June, the Cardinals know that much of their offense will be in place.

Considering the success Levandowski has had building up his defense every season, that combination could spell trouble for the Cardinals’ opponents in 2019.

“It’s certainly going to be challenging. We are in a little bit of an ebb in terms of losing our numbers,” said Levandowski. “All four of our seniors played defense for us. Their ability to play defense is going to be really tough to replace. We are going to have to fill those shoes and have some guys who are going to step up. We’ve got a couple of younger players coming up from the modified team to jump in.”

It helps to return the 2018 Post-Journal Coach of the Year as well.