Ideal Team

The mix of talent, determination, willingness to sacrifice, and cohesion of this year’s players was indeed unique
Rich King, the soccer team’s head coach, acknowledged East Hampton’s many fans following the Bonackers’ 4-2 loss to Greece Athena in the state Class A final. Craig Macnaughton

When asked following East Hampton High’s first-ever appearance in a state boys soccer final if this weren’t the best high school team he’d ever seen, Rich King, Bonac’s coach, who’s seen a lot of good teams and who’s played on good ones at Sachem, said it was certainly one of the better teams he’d ever seen.

He added, however, that the mix of talent, determination, willingness to sacrifice, and cohesion of this year’s players, many of whom have grown up together in the sport, was indeed unique.

“As a coach,” he said, “you want all your teams to be like this one, but, while I’m not saying it won’t happen again, this team was special. This is what Don [McGovern, King’s assistant] and I have been striving for. Not winning a state championship doesn’t take away from what this group accomplished, and from what kind of kids they are. They did everything asked of them and more. This is the most special group from top to bottom that I’ve had the pleasure of coaching.”

When King arrived on the scene here seven years ago, East Hampton’s boys soccer teams had perennially been good, but, despite an abundance of individual talent, not great.

Asked what it was that he and Jim Stewart, the coach he assisted in the beginning and whom he replaced in 2010, had contrived in the way of building a team, King said, “We changed the philosophy, we restructured the way the program was running. For whatever reasons, the players hadn’t all been committed to the same goal. Generally speaking, we began to ask more of them when it came to discipline and accountability.”    

“There were growing pains in 2007 and ’08,” he said. “Some boys weren’t happy . . . about playing time, about being reprimanded when they were held to account, that there were consequences to missing practices, that it was necessary that they keep their grades up. . . . Gradually — and this by no means was an overnight thing — they began to buy in. They were asked to subsume their egos — these are teenage boys we’re talking about, after all, they’re not perfect — in favor of a greater good, the team.”

“I’d say 2009 was when we turned it around. We didn’t have a superior team that year, but we managed to find our way to the county final, with Comsewogue, which was the defending state champion, and which would go on to win the state championship again that year. They beat us 2-0, but it was a respectable showing. To me, that’s when the program changed. It really gave legitimacy to what Jimmy and I had been trying to instill — we were not only carrying ourselves in a professional manner as a team and as a program, but we were winning. And once we started winning, kids became all the more willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good of the team, and, from then on, success built on success.”

The parents were on board, as well, King said. “The parameters we’ve set up, of accountability and respect, for the team, for their teammates, for their coaches, are all very attainable. The expectations we have for them are not at variance with any a parent would have. If there’s something we need to tell the kid, we tell the kid, and if the kid has a problem, he comes to us. We don’t want to hear it from Mommy or Daddy.”

“The parents are always asking us what they can do to help. We’re fortunate to have parents who respect what we’re trying to do, that you should be held accountable for what you say and do and for what you don’t say or do. No excuses.”

“The core group, which includes Nick West, Nick Tulp [each of whom have been named to the all-state team], Bryan Oreamuno, and Esteban Valverde, have all been willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. They are there for one another, they support one another, and they sacrifice for one another. No one boy thinks they’re more important than the entire team — and that’s been true in the recent past, whether it’s been Mario [Olaya], Ernesto [Valverde], Danny Bedoya, or Nick West or Esteban. . . . If you’re not willing to leave your ego at the door, you either have to change or not be a part of us. It’s really that simple, to be honest with you. . . . Our seniors may have learned this when they were freshmen, from the older players. That’s why they’re so tight and why there are no egos. It’s refreshing to see in a high school setting,” he said with a smile. “In that respect alone they’re successful.”

Having followed their careers from an early age, on travel teams that McGovern had coached, he had known for a long time that he had a large talented group coming up, said King. An East Hampton Middle School physical education teacher, he doesn’t participate in the middle school team’s practices (Gary Cherches is the coach there), but he has made sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to the style of play he favors.

“You coach to your players’ abilities,” he said when it was noted that East Hampton’s tiki-taka style of play seemed to be markedly different from its playoff opponents, taller teams that preferred taking to the air and chasing the ball into the corners. 

“Our kids are best suited, because of their technical ability and quickness, to a complicated, speedy, short-passing complete team game,” King said. “We’ll take our best 11 and put them on the field, but we won’t pigeon-hole them. Christian Barrientos, for instance, played this year at outside midfielder, center midfielder, as an outside defender. . . . Nick West has played at center midfielder and at center back. Esteban [Valverde] has been an outside midfielder and striker. . . . Our best players can play multiple positions. That was true of our old teams as well.”

While it would have been “icing on the cake” to have won a state championship (an outcome a number of circumstances, first and foremost being West’s broken foot, conspired against), the kids had been wonderfully successful, said the coach.

The team lost 4-2 in the final to Rochester’s Greece Athena. “You say there were tears after our loss, but there would have been tears too if we’d won. . . . It’s taken me a few days to recover, frankly, but my spirits have finally improved.”

As for the team’s fans, “I want to say that no community travels as well as East Hampton. We had more supporters in Middletown than any other school there. Something organic happened, people started taking interest when the high-profile games began, which is the way this community is no matter what the sport. We had fire truck and police escorts after our county and Long Island championships. We had a police escort when we got back from Middletown. We went to the school and then over to the Townline BBQ to a dinner that the parents had initiated. It was very nice the way the community bought into us. The boys appreciated it.”

Saying goodbye to the 13 seniors “will be the most emotional part for me and for Donny, who’s coached these kids since they were 5 or 6 years old. It’s like that every year, but it will be even more emotional this year. There’s such an attachment. There’s a mutual respect and admiration that exists among the players and coaches. If we’d won, we’d still have to say goodbye.”

The 2014 East Hampton High School boys soccer team won League VI, the county Class A title, and the Long Island championship before finishing as a state finalist in Middletown. Craig Macnaughton