Raising The Bar

Cardinals Look To Improved Offense For Success On Pitch

Randolph’s Kaleb Steward shows his ball-handling skills during the Cardinals’ practice Thursday morning. P-J photos by Jay Young

RANDOLPH — Walking up to take a look at a morning practice session for the defending Section VI Class C champion Randolph boys soccer team, the focus was obvious.

Last year’s Post-Journal Coach of the Year Dave Levandowski and new assistant coach David Philblad had the team boxed into tight quarters, working on ball movement in crowded areas and getting new defensemen used to cutting off passing lanes.

After finishing last year with a 10-9-1 record and a Section VI title, the Cardinals will return to the pitch this season with even higher expectations.

“We’re really raising the bar on what these guys are going to be able to do, we hope, throughout these first two weeks,” said Levandowski on Thursday morning. “I think one of our big keys this year is going to be our offensive power. Guys that have come back, we didn’t have to replace anybody from the midfield forward.”

Taking some time to find their footing as a team a year ago, the Cardinals were able to rely on stout defense throughout the year on the way to a final 1-0 loss against Section V representative Geneseo in a Far West Regional meeting at Sweet Home High School on Nov. 2.

Matt Schultz should play a key role on the back line this season.

Flustering opponents who were used to scoring goals, Randolph took pride in shutting down talented strikers while waiting to capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents.

In 2019, expect them to take the first lead more often than not.

“One of the tokens of Randolph soccer is that we try to make it really difficult for people to play against us. Take away their space, crowd lanes, make it as difficult as possible and try to take advantage of their mistakes. This year could be a little bit different,” said Levandowski.

In addition to losing goaltender Jacob Bulich to graduation, the Cardinals will also be tasked with an overhaul of the defensive corps that was so effective in years prior.

“It’s tough to replace seniors, especially four seniors out of the back like that, but hopefully these kids are ready to step up,” Levandowski added.

Michael Rhodes, left, keeps the ball away from Ben Hitchcock.

Slotting into key roles on the back line will be Evan Kisch, Gage VanRensselaer, Michael Rhodes, Matt Schultz and Branson Morrison.

“We expect some big things out of (Evan). He is more confident this year with his ability to pass the ball out of the backfield,” said Levandowski.

After spending last season at midfield, VanRensselaer will slide back into a more defensive role, while Rhodes returns to the soccer field after a hiatus and Morrison aims to make an impact in his first season with the Cardinals.

The only hiccup so far for Levandowski has been between the pipes, where Kameron Finch is expected to play a key role during his senior season.

“Unfortunately for Kameron he got hurt at our residential camp in Edinboro two weeks ago,” said Levandowski.

Tearing a tendon in his foot, Finch is hoping to return from his injury in the early part of the season while midfielder Ethan Shields fills in.

“He’ll be out until Sept. 3, he’ll be cleared, hopefully, and then he’ll need to get his practices so we expect to miss him the first three games of the season, maybe four,” Levandowski said.

Moving forward from the back end of the field, there is only good news for the Cardinals.

After a standout junior season, Kaleb Steward will return to the front line with more help as senior striker Marcus Evans joins Randolph once again.

“We added Marcus Evans back into our lineup this year who took a couple years off to play club soccer,” said Levandowski. “Kaleb is here again in the middle, Ty Rosengren, Ethan Shields, when he is out of the goal, will be an outside winger for us. Bryson Rozler is a junior. That should be our strongest point is our offense. This year we are hopefully going to put it all together.”

Should any growing pains on the defensive side of the pitch come to light, Randolph certainly has the firepower to put the ball in the net.

After dispatching Maple Grove for the sectional title last season, the Cardinals will meet the Red Dragons for a preseason scrimmage before starting the year off with back-to-back games against Westfield-Brocton.

From there they will be tested against a stout Fredonia team, perennially competitive Southwestern squad as well as Allegany-Limestone in the first six games of the year.

“Our first five or six games there is the potential to start the season with a winless record if we don’t get ourselves prepared and ready to go from the beginning,” said Levandowski. “Every game is going to be tough. We’ll scrimmage with Maple Grove — that is a great way to open — and we’ll see where we are at.”