PEARL RIVER — Once the handshakes were completed and the Pearl River boys soccer team had shuffled back onto the bus following its Class A semifinal win over Eastchester last October, everyone’s attention immediately turned to their cell phones.
Rockland County rival Tappan Zee was playing perennial Westchester power Byram Hills in the other semifinal, and the Pirates were anxious to see the result.
“I remember we were on the bus after we played Eastchester at the World Class field (in Orangeburg), and we were all going on Twitter,” senior striker Craig MacDonald said. “We saw the tweet that TZ had won in overtime, and we went crazy. It was huge. To play the team right next door in one of the biggest games that we’ll play — you dream about that.”
Pearl River prevailed over the Dutchmen in the Section 1 final, breezing to a convincing 3-0 win on its way to the state championship game. The title marked the first for the Pirates since 1995 and resulted in a team which will go down as arguably the best in school history, but Monday marked the start of a new chapter and a new season.
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Less than five miles away, Tappan Zee was gathering for its first official practice of 2016. The Dutchmen still carry the sting of the disappointing loss, but their accomplishments were also noteworthy. Just three years prior, they were among the worst teams in Section 1, and they had never previously reached a Section 1 championship game.
Not too long ago, Westchester teams were considered the alpha dogs in the Class A landscape, with programs such as Byram Hills, Port Chester and Lakeland usually considered the preseason favorites.
Now the power may be shifting across the Hudson River into Rockland County.
“Westchester teams in the past have always been seen as the upper echelon of Section 1,” Tappan Zee senior Jack Samett said. “But now that two Rockland teams were in the final last year, I think people are going to start paying more attention to us.”
Pearl River and Tappan Zee combined to go 35-6-2 last season and ended up sharing a league title, although the Pirates clearly got the last laugh.
There is no love lost as both teams enter a new season with high expectations — “This year,” Pearl River coach Damon O’Keefe said, “we have full intentions of winning the league outright” — but there is also undeniable reverence.
“The respect is through the roof,” O’Keefe said. “We respect Jon (Jacobs) and his group a lot. Coach Jacobs is great. What he’s done with that program over the last few years has been phenomenal.”
Not only do the coaches speak highly of each other, but the players have similar feelings from playing in various offseason leagues together.
“We know a lot of those kids, like Joe Stahl and Jack Samett,” Pearl River senior Kevin Doorley said. “I’ve played with them for a while, and it’s great. It’s even more fun when you know them. After, you get to talk about it and be friends with them. It’s different on the field, but once you get off it, you’re back to being friends again.”
Both teams have holes to fill coming off of a memorable year, but there is no question that they remain viable contenders in Class A.
The Pirates will have several new starters after graduating a strong senior class, but they were noted for their depth last season and O’Keefe feels like he has players who are ready to step into more prominent roles.
The Dutchmen will need to find some offense after losing their top scorers, but their defense will remain one of the best in Section 1 with a few highly-regarded returners in Stahl, Samett and Sam Gould.
“We have to find some depth on that bench, but we really feel that the first 11 guys we put out there can compete with anybody,” O’Keefe said. “As long as we can mentally, emotionally and physically stay within ourselves, I think we have a good chance.”
The rest of Rockland County has some catching up to do. Suffern and North Rockland should be competitive in Class AA, while teams like Nyack, Nanuet, Spring Valley and the Clarkstowns are coming off of down years.
They can look to Pearl River and Tappan Zee as examples of how to turn things around, and they can thank them for putting Rockland County soccer back on the map in Section 1.
“I don’t think there’s a bigger rivalry in Section 1 than TZ and Pearl River,” Jacobs said. “Growing up a Tappan Zee graduate, it’s something that I’ve been a part of for the better part of 20 years. It never gets old. Having two capable teams so close to one another just makes it that much more special.”