SHRUB OAK – Around the time that the Section 1 soccer playoffs were beginning, New Rochelle coach Jarohan Garcia and senior Cristian Valencia got into the habit of sitting next to each other on the bus ride to games.
Their conversations are ongoing, but they rarely focus on soccer. Instead, they discuss Valencia’s college plans and thoughts about the future – “I just ask him questions about the way that he sees the world,” Garcia said – and it has a calming influence for both coach and student.
If it helps Valencia play better, that’s an added bonus, and it certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday. He scored twice in the Class AA final, a dominant 3-0 win over defending champion Arlington, to give the Huguenots their first sectional title since 1996.
“He keeps me focused and gets me ready,” Valencia said. “I have a very good relationship with coach because he’s helped me out a lot, and I really thank him for that.”
New Rochelle entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, but got past top-seeded Mamaroneck and fifth-seeded Scarsdale — both on penalty kicks — before pulling off yet another upset against No. 3 Arlington.
The Huguenots (10-4-4) were lethal in the first half, getting two goals from Valencia and another from Leonardo Vargas while holding the Admirals to no shot attempts on goal. Omar Espinoza assisted on two of the goals and Harwan Alzuabidi on the other.
“I think that was our best half all season,” senior Ethan Manley said. “Putting three in the net after not scoring in regulation and overtime in the last game – that was the best start we could have ever asked for.”
In the not-so-distant past, this same New Rochelle program was in turmoil. An incident during a game against White Plains in 2013 left one player’s jaw broken and smeared the Huguenots’ reputation.
Prior to the 2014 season, Garcia was brought in to take over the head coaching duties, and he sent a clear message.
“Coach has been amazing,” Manley said. “He is this program. He changed everything – the culture, the attitude and the way that we felt about our own team. Before, I always said that New Ro didn’t have a winning mentality, but he brought that. He made us believe in our ourselves and brought discipline and structure.”
Once the off-the-field issues were straightened out, the enviable talent at New Rochelle was able to thrive, which led to a championship much quicker than anyone expected. After a difficult road to the final, the Huguenots put on their most impressive display of all against the same Arlington team which had beaten them earlier this season.
The journey will continue on Wednesday in the regional semifinals against Section 4 champion Ithaca, which will be played at 6:30 p.m. at Lakeland High School.
“The talent is just unbelievable in New Rochelle,” Garcia said. “The kids were there – it was just a matter of giving them the avenue to be successful.”