When the Martin Luther King Jr. boys’ soccer team lost in September, it was the squad’s first defeat in 33 games and nearly three years. But all good things must come to an end, even for King, the unquestioned powerhouse of high school boys’ soccer in New York City and public school champions for 10 of the past 12 years.
Then, on Oct. 7, King lost again. Suddenly, everyone had to re-evaluate some long-held assumptions about the city’s soccer pecking order, particularly because the victor in both games was Beacon High School.
“King was always so, so talented,” Beacon head coach Alec Mahrer said last week before a game against Stuyvesant at North Meadow in Central Park. “They’re still very good. They may not be as deep as they were in the past, and I feel over the years we have caught up a little. We’ve had steady improvement over the years.”
The last time Beacon looked this good was in 2005, when the Blue Demons upset King in the championship game thanks to an overtime goal by freshman Baimba “Beamer” Freeman, a refugee from Liberia. It was Freeman, now a senior, who scored again in the first Beacon-King match-up this year. His goal helped produce a 2-1 victory.
“That hasn’t happened in a long time,” Mahrer said of vanquishing his West Side rival twice in one season. “Anybody could have won the first game. King was very strong in that game, and it really could have gone either way. In the second game, I was really proud of the guys. They had a lot of confidence and controlled the ball from the beginning. It was very satisfying to play that well.”
Beacon was 11-0 at press time, with only one more game before the end of the regular season. The Demons have their Manhattan A League title sewn up, and a No. 1 seed for the playoffs is assured. But Mahrer knows that nothing is guaranteed in the postseason. He thinks his team can beat King if they meet again, but there are plenty of good squads from the other boroughs out there, like Christopher Columbus from the Bronx, James Madison from Brooklyn and Francis Lewis from Queens. All are undefeated.
“It’s never easy,” Mahrer said.
He would know, especially after last spring. That’s when his Bronx Science girls’ soccer team was bumped out of the title chase following a semifinal upset loss to Beacon. The Demons’ coach in that game, Kevin Jacobs, is Mahrer’s second-in-command in the fall.
Both men gave a lot of credit for Beacon’s success thus far to a group of four seniors: Freeman, goalie Jesse Toporek, sweeper Will Congdon and midfielder Caetano Sanchez.
“They’ve played together on the team for four years now, and their one goal is to win,” Mahrer said. “There’s no selfish play, and they’re all very experienced and strong players. They provide really valuable leadership. We came into this year feeling we had as good a shot at the championship as anyone else.”
It was Sanchez who started the scoring against Stuyvesant last week. Despite several excellent opportunities, including an incredible shot by Congdon that clanked against the crossbar, Beacon did not break through offensively until late in the first half. That’s when a misplayed clear by the opposing goalie left the ball at Sanchez’s feet. He lifted a feathery 40-yard lob that fluttered into the net. He now has 11 goals and eight assists on the year.
At the end of the second half, Freeman made the 2-0 score final with another goal. A classic striker, equal parts blinding speed and muscular determination, he spent most of the game blanketed by defenders, clawing forward against near constant tackles and shoves. Finally, with a few minutes to go, he beat the keeper to a long pass and managed to nudge the ball just hard enough to cross the goal line.
“They were running interference on me so I couldn’t get the ball and run,” Freeman said. “They were doing a good job of crowding me, but we’re Beacon. We’re just about finding a way to win and a way to score, and that’s what we did today.”
Freeman has tallied seven scores this fall. On the defensive side, Toporek has surrendered only three goals, while making 44 saves—a big part of why Beacon is the new top dog in the city.
“It’s leadership and hard work,” Freeman explained. “We have a really good coach. We started our preseason on Aug. 20 and been working hard ever since. Everyone works together. We emphasize always going after the ball, and that provides motivation to everyone. I’m proud of all the guys. We’re doing pretty well.”
Last year, Beacon lost in the semifinals on penalty kicks. This season, no one will be happy with anything short of a championship trophy. The playoffs begin in about a week.
“It’ll take a lot of discipline, a lot of character, a lot of stepping up from our younger players,” Congdon said. “In the playoffs, you win or go home. We need to show more consistency. If we do that and play the way we know we can play, I think we have a good shot.”
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