Eleven years ago when Sandro Prosperino took over the Valhalla boys soccer program, his first chore was to send the message that mediocrity and complacency were no longer going to be the norms.
As is often the case when it comes to sudden change, there was some initial resistance.
“We weren’t a soccer school,” said Prosperino, who has coached the Vikings to a 43-14-8 record in the last four seasons. “The guy before me was here for 32 years and he was 60 games under .500. It was a challenge to change the mindset of the old way when the old way was there for three decades.
“The toughest time in the 11 years was that first week.”
Prosperino cut four seniors whose lack of commitment was a detriment to the team and had to answer to displeased parents, but it was a necessary evil in order to begin the culture change.
The process of the developing the talent and generating the interest that it would take to be competitive would require more patience. Based on enrollment, Valhalla is one of the smallest schools in Section 1, which only added to the difficulties of turning the program around.
So how do coaches and administrators find success when numbers are low and quality athletes are hard to come by? It’s complicated, but it starts with bringing the right attitude.
“One of the first things I did was try and create a culture of winning, and more importantly, pride in the baseball program,” said Albertus Magnus baseball coach Dan Freeman, who led the Falcons to a Class B title in 2015 after a 21-year drought. “The boys needed to understand that just because we didn’t have as large of a team as our opponents, it didn’t mean that we weren’t just as good, if not better.”
The best way to ensure that you can field a viable team at a small school is to get a head start, which means having effective youth programs in place. Pleasantville athletic director John Bauerlein praised the “Dad’s Club” in his district, which gives parents the opportunity to get involved in the feeder system.
“It helps unbelievably,” Bauerlein said. “They provide those programs with volunteer coaches on our fields and in our gyms, and they’re in touch with our (varsity) coaches. They do clinics that are small fundraisers for teams with those young kids who are interested. They basically try to get the kids interested in everything, so when they get to the high school, they can choose what they like best.”
It’s critical to expose kids to several sports in school districts that may only have a few hundred students because that’s where multi-sport athletes can be the lifeblood.
At high schools with thousands of students, specialization is much more common and accepted. But when it comes to small schools, the top athletes often play two or three sports and represent the best players on each of those teams.
“My football team and lacrosse team almost mirror each other,” Bauerlein said. “I don’t think small schools could survive without the three-sport athlete, and those kids love playing for their schools. They’re very focused and have a lot of school spirit.”
When it comes to winning with an undermanned roster, Woodlands football coach Mike Meade is a professional. He won a Class A championship in 2009 at Roosevelt with a roster of just over 20 players and has won two Class C titles at Woodlands with less than 30.
Meade said that this is the first time in his six years at Woodlands in which he’s had over 30 on his roster — 31, to be exact, which is still a very low number for football — and he credits the “Destination College” program that they’ve implemented.
“We have a whole academic program that we follow that helps our kids in the classroom, and that’s very attractive to the parents,” he said. “We’re making sure that whether it’s Division I or Division III, we’re getting them into college.
“The success on the field is all related to what we do off of the field. Kids feel good about themselves.”
When you add up all of those ingredients — passionate coaches, committed athletes, strong youth programs and a clear path to college — then the wins will usually follow, regardless of how shallow the talent pool is.
And as any of these coaches will tell you, once the trophy case starts filling up, the program tends to find ways of replenishing itself.
“Once you start tasting some of that success, it makes my job and that win-first mentality much easier,” said Solomon Schechter boys soccer coach Bryan Lamana, who led his team to the Class C state final last season. “Our expectations are growing. We keep defying the odds. Every year, I lose about half my starting lineup, and we still manage to stay competitive.”