During last year's playoffs, Mineola Mustangs boys soccer coach Paul Pereira relived his surprising state final four run of a few years ago. This time, however, it was in bittersweet fashion. Eerie comparisons to the 2005 Mustangs came to mind when the undefeated eighth seeded, Conference ABC-II champion Great Neck North Blazers came to Mineola for a quarterfinal Class A playoff game last October.
The speed and energy of the Blazers (and a controversial non-call on a Mustang breakaway) offset the tenacity of Mineola in a hard fought 1-0 loss to the eventual Nassau County champion. This year, the Mustangs seek revenge as the Blazers become the favorite to capture the Conference ABC-I crown. As usual, the Mustangs have the talent and commitment to compete at the highest levels of Long Island scholastic soccer.
Graduating six conference and county award winners from last year's roster provides a challenge for Pereira and new varsity assistant (and former junior varsity head coach) Al Cavaluzzo. The key to continuity is the return of senior striker Nuno Rodriques, a four-year varsity starter who finishes his career as one of the most renowned players in Mustang history. All-Conference as a freshman, Honorable Mention All-County as a sophomore and All-County, Newsday All-Long Island, All-Region and All-State as a junior leaves Nuno few accolades left to accumulate. Rodriques will garner attention for Long Island Player of the Year and is currently being recruited by a number of Division I programs. Exposure comes in many forms as Rodriques also competes for the United States Soccer Federation Albertson Academy team, which is currently ranked seventh in the nation.
Senior leadership is a team strength behind classmates Michael Birk and TJ Winters. Michael is a three-year starter and two-time All-Conference selection who will shift to the sweeper position for his final campaign. Birk, also possessing the Albertson Premier Club pedigree, has been a defensive stalwart and will be counted upon to aid youth between the pipes. Winters stepped into the starting fullback role as a junior after pre and post-season call-ups the prior year. TJ supports the offense with his athletic ability to lope the outer ranges of the pitch.
Pereira's key to success has been the early development of talented goal scorers. The upcoming season continues a trend set by Gustavo Dias, Michael Marques and Nuno with the arrival of freshman Christian Lird.
Lird has the ability to make an immediate impact while serving his apprenticeship under Rodriques. Likewise, sophomore forward Marco Oliveira has great speed and touch and is "a soccer fanatic," according to his coach. In the midfield, junior Ricardo Magalhaes is expected to bring his junior varsity experience to the varsity level very quickly.
Reminiscent of the 2006 season, a competition in the goal could be a highlight to the season. Up and coming underclassmen Phil Ribeiro and Bryan Lopes will battle for the keeper's spot, one of the few areas of depth this team may see. Junior stopper Joe Lee will add size and strength in front of the net and will be a critical component to the team's set pieces and corner kicks.
With Great Neck North and Jericho anticipated to be the class of the conference, Pereira notes, "There are no easy games."
The automatic playoff berth lifts some pressure from the regular season but wins determine seeding. Conference opponents from Garden City, South Side, Roslyn and Cold Spring Harbor will add to the grind of a seven-week schedule. A non-league game under the lights of Tully Field on Sept. 12 will extend a local rivalry with Carle Place. The recently completed 10th annual Mustang Cup Tournament opened the season.
The 2008 playoff appearance sets a new school record with a fifth consecutive invite to the post-season. In total, Pereira and staff will extend the schedule for the eighth time in 12 seasons, nine of which have produced records above .500. In addition, with five wins, Pereira becomes only the second coach to exceed 100 wins as a Mustang trailing only Frank Carbone (146 victories between 1964 and 1983) in school history.
Cavaluzzo, who guided the junior varsity team for 10 years, has been promoted to the varsity sideline and assists with practice, game strategy and scouting. Pete Blum, formerly coached by Pereira in his middle school days at Carle Place, takes over the reins of the junior varsity. Bill DiGennaro and Matt Mascola handle middle school duties.
As the school year begins, Mustang soccer always comes front and center. A history of tradition envelops a team with exciting players and a talented supporting cast built to succeed at the highest levels of Long Island soccer. A devoted group of soccer enthusiasts well conditioned to meet any challenge will seek to advance the Mustangs beyond last year's quarterfinal loss. Not only is anything possible, it is likely probable.