Panthers Blaze an Unforgettable Path to State Tournament

It goes without saying that the Rye Neck boys’ soccer team took their Class B Regional final loss to Center Moriches hard. The Long Island school’s 2-1 victory November 14 at Arlington High School ended a dream run for the Panthers.

What the team will remember down the road, however, is not that loss, but the indelible journey that concluded with them joining the elite eight in all of New York State.

“We told the kids at the beginning of this season that last year was over and to concentrate on what was ahead of them,” said co-head coach Bryan Iacovelli, who led the Panthers to the Section final in 2008. “This was a different team with a different make-up that improved as the season went on and peaked at just the right time. Coach Frank Gizzo and I knew that when their own expectations met ours, that’s when they would realize what they were truly capable of.”

Panthers celebrate their Section championship victory (Photo courtesy McWilton family)

The Panthers – seeded sixth in the Section playoffs – returned to the Class B championship game with three consecutive playoff victories, including a 2-0 win over No. 7 Bronxville, the reigning State champs, in the semifinals. Bronxville ousted Rye Neck from the final the previous year in a 5-1 rout. The Panthers held a 1-0 lead for most of the game November 5, until senior Adam Gutierrez dished to Ivan Martinez for a clinching goal in the 76th minute.

“We’ve been fighting hard, so it feels great to pull through,” said Gutierrez. “When I play with Ivan, whoever has the better shot gets the ball. That’s the job of a forward.”

In the 2009 Section final, the Panthers were pitted against top-seeded Edgemont at Arlington November 7. Rye Neck raced to a 2-0 lead just 20 minutes into the contest, and finished off the heavily favored team 3-1, for the school’s first boys’ soccer Section title since 1999. Martinez and Gutierrez scored Rye Neck’s first two goals, and then Phillipe Adam added the third in the 75th minute. Edgemont finally got on the board with a minute remaining. Clearly, the Panthers’ defense stunned their one-loss opponent, with Connor McWilton and Mike Goncalves deserving much credit. The duo shut down Justin Orden – the striker who led the region in scoring with 34 goals this season.

“I said last year when we lost to Bronxville the standard was set for what to expect,” said Iacovelli, who played for the Panthers and won a Section title under then-coach Doug Choron in 1995. “This team exceeded that, which was very rewarding for Frank and me.”

The Section championship earned Rye Neck a spot in the State tournament, where Section 9’s O’Neill awaited in the Regional semifinal November 10. After nearly 74 minutes of scoreless frustration, Gutierrez finally cashed in with 6:20 remaining on an assist from Martinez, who delivered a near-perfect pass despite some serious congestion around him. Gutierrez banged it in, and the relief washed over them both. Gutierrez added an insurance goal in the 78th minute, after Adam jammed an O’Neill player at midfield and blasted a pass down the pitch.

“I told the boys persistence and hard work pays off,” said Gizzo. “They didn’t give up and kept plugging away – that’s all you can ask for. I’m very proud of all the boys.”

Rye Neck lost their subsequent game, but the program has returned to prominence. Although the Panthers will graduate 10 seniors who have had much to do with recent success – Gutierrez, Adam, Goncalves, Luis Ruigomez, Greg Petrillo, Daisuke Takai, John Sousa, Adam Gourchane, and Jeff Karell – the memories will live on.

“The players felt the excitement in the community and the buzz in the school during their run,” said Iacovelli. “It was something special. Having gone through it myself as a player, I know the guys may not realize it yet, but they’ll look back on what they accomplished in a few years and appreciate everything about it. Especially the friendships formed from the experience.”


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