Rush-Led Hillbillies Celebrate Again, 35 Years Later
During a year when so many things were going wrong in the world around them, the Fredonia Hillbillies rose above adversity of all kinds. In the end, Jim Rush’s squad had too much potential and determination on its side to be denied what was coming.
This year’s Post-Journal Coach of the Year led Fredonia to its first Section VI Class B-2 Championship since 1985, besting the same Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association West Division champion Allegany-Limestone team that it had lost to and tied during the regular season.
Buoyed by a stalwart group of seniors, the Hillbillies finished the year at 12-1-3.
Not knowing if they would even have the opportunity to play in 2020, Fredonia’s players celebrated the end of an unprecedented season with a victory the program both needed and deserved.
“I’m still on cloud nine and I’m still so happy for the team and the section title. It was just an amazing season,” Rush said. “It is such a great feeling, just the way the community embraced the team and all of the support that we got. It was just a great ride. I still am getting chills talking about it and thinking about it. When you look at the photo at the end of the year and just the joy in the players’ faces … to me that is important because everybody contributed and it was a total team effort. It was wonderful to see.”
Knowing that the Gators would return another talent-laden roster to the West Division, and there was a chance the season would never make it to a sectional final, Rush only asked his players for one thing — work.
“I’m not saying we were the prettiest team around, but everybody knew going in that they were going to get 100 percent and we weren’t going to back down and that showed in our play,” he said. “We had some good talent but the biggest thing with us too was we were always going to work hard. Mentally we are going to be strong and we’re going to play hard, and we’re going to maintain our composure and continue to work hard. That is the mantra that I like. When you put that along with some talent that leads to some success.”
That message was easier said than done, especially after the Hillbillies drew the Gators for their first game of the season.
That match would be decided on an outside shot by West Division Player of the Year Chance LaCroix with four minutes left in regulation.
“Allegany is just an awesome program,” Rush said. “They are consistently winning sectional titles and competing in Far West Regional games and things like that. Going into that game a lot of it was just the idea of seeing where we stood.”
Following that loss, Fredonia would pick up momentum on the way to a five-game winning streak before facing off with the Gators again on Oct. 23.
Playing that game at their “home away from home” under the lights in Silver Creek, the Hillbillies were denied vengeance due to weather and a few unfortunate bounces.
“They jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a quirky goal, just a couple of awkward bounces,” Rush said. “Then we tied it in the second half in about the 54th minute, and then the skies opened up about eight minutes later and we only played 62 minutes that game. There was a lightning storm so they ultimately called the game.”
Jack Carlson would get Fredonia the equalizer in that contest, a harbinger of more heroics to come from the clutch senior.
Entering the third game of the year against Allegany-Limestone, Rush knew that his team was capable of turning the tide on the season and history.
“My message was ‘We can compete with them and there is no reason why we can’t win this game,'” Rush said. “We got a goal early, 10 minutes in from Jack Carlson. A brilliant shot past their keeper (Jack Conroy) who was the first-team all-league keeper. The score held up. In the playoffs 1-0 games are going to be the norm.”
Juan Matias, Fredonia’s leading scorer with a 15-goal, four-assist campaign, would assist Carlson on that goal.
Fredonia’s biggest stars showed up under the brightest lights.
Adding to the storybook end-of-season finish were several storylines, including the group of senior players that made it possible, and a connection to the past.
With 2020 marking his fourth year as a head coach, Rush celebrated a sectional title with the same group that helped him build the program from the ground up as underclassmen, including his son, Alexander.
“When you come in and you want to put your ideas in a program it does take some time, and I grew as a coach also and I learned from the players,” Rush said. “This was a group where, of the 11 starters, I would say six or seven came up through the club system locally and the others — good athletes who played soccer and just fit in nicely. There were times when I didn’t really have to say much because you have players on the field who are like, ‘Guys, we’ve got this, we are fine. We just need to adjust this.'”
Before stepping on the field for the final game of the year, the Hillbillies brought along a talisman reminding them of the past. Senior defender Dominic Gullo had in his possession a Section VI championship patch from the 1985 team, on which his father Joe played.
“What made it even more special is the coat with the patch from the 1985 team he wore to the game,” Rush said. “To have the ’85 patch on the bus as we were going to Allegany, and then afterwards we looked at it, took a picture of it and said ‘It’s time to put on a new one.'”
That message has resonated with the community. Since the end of the season, Rush has received messages from former Fredonia players, expressing their congratulations on this new chapter in history.