For New Rochelle, this upcoming season will be defined by much more than wins and losses.
Sure, the Huguenots have the talent – and the numbers – to make some serious noise in Class AA for the first time in awhile. But first-year coach Jarohan Garcia is more focused on facilitating growth and healing for a team that has had its reputation dragged through the mud in the past year.
“I’m a teacher first,” said Garcia, who is an English teacher in the building but had never been involved with the soccer program until this summer. “I’ve always been a teacher. One of my philosophies has been that if they see that you are putting a lot of hard work into it, they’ll do the same thing. You lead by example, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to lead by example and I’m open to learning.”
The mere mention of the incident that left White Plains midfielder Ozzie Escobedo with a broken jaw brings a grimace to the face of any player who was on the team last season.
During a game on October 10 last season, New Rochelle’s Stefedson Dieudonne threw a punch at Escobedo and was later charged with third-degree assault. It left both programs searching for answers – many of which they’re still trying to figure out.
“We need to get rid of that as soon as possible, because it’s not the same thing anymore,” senior midfielder Alexis Cisneros said on Thursday. “That really was just a series of things that were going on that influenced a lot of bad things. To be honest, it really shouldn’t have happened. It just slipped out of our hands when that happened, but with everything that’s been going on and the discipline that coach has instilled in us, I think that should all be forgotten this year. It’s going to be a different game.”
In the not-so-distant past, the Huguenots were a team that most coaches dreaded playing – not so much because of their skill, but more so because of their reputation of being undisciplined, and the ill-fated punch only made things worse.
But the difference at practice this week has been obvious. The players seem refreshed by Garcia’s presence, and as a result, there is a new sense of pride at New Rochelle.
“There definitely is excitement on the team, I’ve noticed, just because there is a big change in the energy from the coaches,” junior midfielder Luca Sanna said. “Last year was a lot about drill sergeants. I don’t want to criticize (the former coaches) in a bad way, but I’ve noticed that the (new) coaches have made a lot of positive changes. A lot of the kids have improved their behavior and they’re really starting to love the game more.”
• Where did Garcia come from, you ask? Well, he’s originally from Long Island and he played college soccer at Clark University. He hadn’t been involved with the program — he said he “just wanted the best for the program, even from afar” — and he brought on former Port Chester coach Tom Corbia as an assistant. Corbia is well-respected around the section after previously serving as the President of the Coaches Association, so he’s been a huge asset for the inexperienced head coach. “I’m extremely thankful to have coach Corbia – who has been a coach for 25 years – next to me,” Garcia told me. “He’s been a tremendous help, just with questions that I have. Little things that I don’t know, he tells me. In that aspect, I’m very grateful.”
• As part of his process of holding his new players accountable, Garcia had each players’ grades listed next to his name on the roster that the coach keeps handy for himself. I’ve never seen that before, but Garcia says that it’s his way of making sure he’s only taking, “…great students, great role models and great characters.” When someone makes a nice play on the field that catches his eye, he refers to the list to make sure that player is also getting it done in the classroom.
• So far, the players are buying in. I’ve never seen a team that seemed to embrace change with such open arms. “This year, coach Garcia has basically given everybody a chance,” Cisneros said. “Last year, from the very first day of tryouts, you were able to tell that guys were coming in and they weren’t trying. There were basically coach favorites, and this year, it hasn’t been anything like that thanks to the new coaching staff. Nobody really knows anything about how a player plays until they show it themselves. It’s been good for all of us, because not only do we have to continue working, it also opens a lot of windows for anybody.”
• How would they describe Garcia? “Coach Garcia is really strict, but at the same time, he knows how to have fun and interact with the players,” Sanna said. “But when it’s time to do business, you have to work. There’s no slacking off with him.”
• Here are Garcia’s thoughts on the White Plains incident, and what he said to his team about how they’ll handle the game this year. “We’ve instilled a completely new attitude towards the kids,” he said. “To us, it’s just going to be one more game. I’ve told the kids, ‘I want you to be competitive. I want you to want it more than they do, but we’re going to be clean. Someone knocks you down, you get up, clean yourself and keep playing. You knock somebody down, you extend your hand, you pick them up and you keep playing.’ That’s it, because at the end of the day, it’s just a game.”
• Since the coaching change, I was told that new players have been coming out of the woodwork. New Ro had over 100 kids show up on Day 1, which Garcia quickly shaved down to 98 after checking each players’ grades. Garcia said that at least 10 of them had never been involved with the program previously, so there may be a hidden gem or two in the mix. “It’s overwhelming,” he said. “That’s why it took us two sessions a day, three hours long, and that’s why we started summer workouts in July once I was appointed the head coach, just to really start getting to know the players, their attitudes and to let them know that, ‘What you put in is what you’re going to get out.’”
• Incredibly, I was told that about 70 percent of the varsity roster last season consisted of seniors, yet the Huguenots still have such strong numbers. This team should look very different from last year’s. “I feel like it’s a brand new start. We have an expectation for ourselves to work towards, but it’s a new slate, so we don’t have anything to live up to yet. We’re sort of setting the bar for ourselves,” Cisneros said. “In a sense, it’s not a bad thing that we lost as many seniors as we did. It’s a good thing for the guys coming up because it gives them a chance to work hard for what they want. It also sets a good foundation for what they want next year and in years to come. We’ve got young guys coming up and getting experience.”
• Garcia is still narrowing down his roster, and after not being around last season, he wanted to wait a bit before naming names. But Cisneros said that there are a couple of returners that he’s looking for big things out of. “We have to watch out this year for Federico Canapa,” he said. “He’s a smart guy on the ball, and another teammate of mine is Luis Lua, a center back who’s played varsity since his sophomore year. He’s doing great. We just have to see how things go this year.”
• This is probably stating the obvious, but cutting the roster down from 98 at tryouts has been very tough, according to Garcia. “I still have 30 kids (after Thursday’s cuts) that I have to look at today,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it anywhere between 20 and 23 kids on the team. Cutting all of those kids was very difficult – I mean, very, very hard. Cutting the next seven, it’s going to be almost impossible.”
• Does that mean that Garcia sees a lot of talent in the group? “Talent is one thing, just like potential,” he said. “We have a long, long way to go before I can even say how good we’re going to be, or what we’re going to be lacking, or what our record is going to be. We just did cuts today, so we’ll see. The talent is definitely there, but where that’s going to get us, I’m not sure.”
• Final word goes to Sanna, who spoke about the change in attitude: “You can already tell by the chemistry and the way that people show up on the pitch,” he said. “Everybody wants to play for each other. There aren’t many individual players, like what we’ve seen in the past. Everybody wants to play for the team, and I think for the first game, we’ll be ready.”