By Kevin Prise
Reflecting on his team in the midst of its inspiring run through the 2013 sectional playoffs, veteran Medina boys soccer coach Steve Luksch had nothing but positive things to say about last year's decision to combine forces with Lyndonville to field a handful of school sports teams.
"It's been completely a success," Luksch said. "At first, I had a few concerns, but now not at all. I feel like it's a win-win all around."
Effective starting in the 2012 fall season, the Medina and Lyndonville school districts decided to merge for boys soccer and football. Starting this academic year, the merger extended to include cross-country running (fall) and track and field (spring).
Based on this year's fall outcomes, most notably in boys soccer, the merger has proven to be a rousing success. Luksch said he was rather nervous at first to see how players from the two schools would bond, but was happy to see players take a liking to each other almost immediately. He said that Medina and Lyndonville players hang out with each other outside of practice, share rides together, play together in summer leagues and in some cases even work together.
The soccer team's on-field success doesn't hurt, either. The Mustangs earned the No. 2 seed in Section VI Class B-1 sectional play and proceeded to make a run through the playoffs, defeating Eden and Lafayette to reach the Halloween night B-1 final at Hamburg High School.
After nearly 110 minutes of back-and-forth play between Medina/Lyndonville and Newfane on a windy and rainy Halloween, it was a Lyndonville player who came up with the heroics, as Lyndonville senior Brennen O'Connor played the wind perfectly on a sudden-death corner kick that found the upper right corner of the net. With the goal, Medina/Lyndonville was Class B-1 champion.
O'Connor was joined on this year's team by Lyndonville juniors Steven Anderson and James Ianni, and seniors Alex Murphy and Evan Milleville. All were important to the team's success.
Milleville served as a steady presence on defense throughout the year, as did Murphy, who served as backup goaltender and was forced into spot duty in the second half of the Class B-1 final against Newfane. With starter Adam Hoot briefly sidelined after being hit in the jaw, Murphy came in and made a huge save to keep the score tied at one.
Anderson and Ianni may have been the team's best players, with Anderson making his presence immediately felt in the season opener against Newfane, scoring a hat trick in a 4-3 overtime loss. He finished the season with 16 goals and five assists.
Anderson's 21 points were second-most on the team, trailing only Ianni, the throw-in specialist who totaled 28 points on 12 goals and 16 assists.
O'Connor's stats weren't as flashy, but he came up with the biggest goal, and the charismatic senior said that adapting to a new group of teammates proved to be challenging yet rewarding.
"Getting to know new teammates and a new style of play has been a process, but it's been great," O'Connor said after Medina/Lyndonville's B-1 semifinal victory over Lafayette. "Trying to figure out where everyone else is going to be on the field, in different situations. Today was a lot of one-on-one matchups, and having the chemistry was important."
Luksch and Medina athletic director Chris Hughes have embraced the merger, adding Lyndonville AD Lee Dillenbeck as an assistant coach for boys soccer and making sure that perennial Lyndonville rivals such as Kendall, Attica and Holley stay on the Medina/Lyndonville schedule as non-league games. The group also schedules at least one game at the Lyndonville soccer field each season, and will strive to do so for as long as the merger is in effect, Luksch said.
A few years ago, a similar sports merger between Barker and Lyndonville was proposed, only to be shot down in the final stages of development. Lyndonville students were going to have the opportunity to play football for Barker, while Barker boys soccer players would be able to play at Lyndonville.
Although it never went into effect, the idea was ahead of its time. The gradually declining population in upstate New York has meant a decrease in enrollment at public schools across the region, and fielding full rosters for high school sports teams has become harder and harder.
Barker ultimately merged with Roy-Hart for football, with the team playing the majority of its games at Roy-Hart's stadium in Middleport. As time went on, it became harder for Lyndonville to fill a full roster for boys soccer (despite the team's consistent success in years past), so the merger with Medina was pursued.
Football-wise, Lyndonville didn't even have a team recently, so the merger gives Lyndonville athletes the chance to suit up on the gridiron if they so choose. Medina/Lyndonville went 5-4 this season and qualified for the Section VI playoffs for the first time since 2010, before falling to eventual sectional finalist Alden in the quarterfinal round.
Head football coach Eric Valley said Lyndonville players have played a key role on the team in providing talent and depth, and that he looks forward to increasing the Lyndonville presence on his team in the coming seasons. Lyndonville's Tom Follman played a key role on the Mustang defense throughout the 2013 fall season, demonstrating his toughness in returning from a concussion suffered against Burgard to carve a niche as one of the team's leading tacklers later in the season.
In cross-country, Lyndonville's Dalton Cerbone was one of the team's best runners throughout the fall season, most notably coming in fifth place at the All-Niagara-Orleans League meet at Lakeside Beach State Park.
Luksch did say the merger has made things harder in that he is forced to cut more players during tryouts, a difficult task that no coach enjoys.
Still, when O'Connor's corner kick found the net to give the Medina/Lyndonville boys soccer team the Class B-1 crown, there was no question that the decision to merge had paid off. Parents from both schools cheered raucously in the rain-soaked stands at Hamburg HS, cheering for the same players, the same team.
Two towns separated by eight miles, yes, but one Class B-1 boys soccer champion.