Coming off an 0-16 season in which the Silver Creek Black Knights finished the 2010 girls soccer season with only nine players, a handful of Silver Creek freshmen, led by Jade Lewis, went to Kevin Rice and begged him to take over the soccer program.
From 2008 to 2010, the Black Knights had compiled a 3-42-3 record. They had been outscored 197-27.
The girls soccer program was on its last leg and was ready to be eliminated.
OBSERVER?Photo at top by Craig Harvey
Pictured from left are Silver Creek’s Katie Dittiger, Janelle Cossin, Jade Lewis, coach?Kevin?Rice, Emily Harford, Irene Klemens and Shelby Harford. With the soccer program on the chopping block, players begged Rice to take the program over. Three years later, the Black?Knights are in contention for a league title.
"At that time, finances were really bad everywhere," Silver Creek athletic director Sean Helmer said. "It's something we looked at, but it's a program we wanted for the girls and we were able to hold onto it."
Thanks to Lewis and company, Rice agreed to take over the struggling program.
Rice began playing soccer at the age of 7 in the Rochester area, where he grew up. He played goalie in high school and went on to continue his playing career at Fredonia State University.
Now, with two daughters of his own who are involved with soccer, and not wanting to lose the soccer program before they reach high school, Rice agreed to take over the program.
"Me, Emily Harford and a couple others went to Mr. Rice and begged him to coach us," Lewis recalled. "We were begging him. We knew our program was going to get cut if something didn't change and we knew he could bring some new ideas to the team. He saved our program."
In 2012, just his second year as coach, the Black Knights went 4-13-1, but won the school's first ever playoff game with a 9-0 victory over Leonardo da Vinci in the pre-quarterfinals.
CHANGING THE CULTURE
Rice remembers the first week of taking over the soccer team vividly.
The high school English teacher walked the hallways in the spring of 2011, trying to recruit players.
"I knew I had 12-13 girls and knew it wasn't enough," Rice said. "I remember going through the hallways knowing who our girl athletes were. They weren't necessarily soccer players. I asked what they were doing in the fall. I kind of banged the bushes to get the extra three or four girls out."
And after the first week of practice, Rice knew he had his hands full. He had a roster full of athletes with very little soccer skills. Despite the team finishing 1-16 on the season, Rice was determined to make Silver Creek soccer a respectable program.
"I had a core of about six sophomores at the time who are now seniors," Rice said. "I have built it around them. Realistically, when I took it over, I came in with the philosophy and plan that if we are going to do this, we are going to do it right. The first year was about learning skills. I had very few girls with varsity-level ball skills. We worked on dribbling, shooting and trapping the ball - things you learn at a younger age."
Helmer noted with many sports, players only play the sport during the season and don't play again until the following year.
Rice made sure his players would stay committed as he made the players commit to a second season and compete in spring travel soccer.
"I saw the potential from the first year," Rice said. "From that first year moving forward, I came up with the philosophy we have to be committed and put in the effort in the offseason and hope it would pay off."
A WORK IN PROGRESS
After a year of teaching players the basics of soccer, Rice thought 2012 would be the year his team would start to become competitive and see the results in the win column. However, the team finished 4-13-1.
But it was a step in the right direction as Silver Creek won its first playoff game ever.
"I didn't think we did as much as we potentially could have last year," Rice said. "We didn't fail. We won more games than any other team in our history. We won a Sectional playoff game. In the second half of that season, we were able to play teams like Frewsburg, Maple Grove and Randolph competitively. We weren't losing 7-0 anymore. We were losing 2-0 or 3-0. To say it wasn't frustrating, it certainly was. You know the time and effort you put into it, but you're still getting on the bus with a loss."
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
This year, the Black Knights are in second place in the standings behind Cattaraugus-Little Valley with a 9-2-1 record. The team has outscored its opponents 32-9 and the team is the talk of the school.
"Right now, they have a ton of support," Helmer said. "It's a senior-heavy group. Everyone knows the girls on the team. Kevin has a lot of good kids. They are pretty easy to like."
The team is led by seniors Lewis, Emily Harford, Irene Klemens, and Mary Bonasera. Shelby Harford and transfer Janelle Cossin have contributed immensely this season as well.
Emily Harford is the team's leading goal scorer this year with seven while Cossin and Hannah Seiders each have six goals.
"Janelle is one of those players who kind of came out of nowhere," Rice said. "She wasn't even here my first year. Her family moved from Ohio. She came out as a freshman. I played her in modified and saw her in one practice and put her up on varsity. She is a sophmore now and has some really good skill. She is a player who, if she puts time and effort in, she can play at the next level."
The leader of the team has been Lewis. As a midfielder, Lewis has scored three goals and added three assists. She has earned his praise from Rice.
"One of the best players we have had the last three years has been Jade Lewis," Rice said. "She probably had the most talent when I first took over. She was still a raw player, but had all the physical attributes. She can play 80 full minutes and not look like she is winded. The skill set was very raw. She was a great athlete, but didn't have the skill sets for soccer. Now as senior, she can seriously play at the D-3 college level. She has stamina and physicality and enough skill now she can play at the next level."
Lewis says her maturity as a soccer player is all thanks to Rice.
"We had raw talent, but we didn't have discipline or the drive yet," Lewis said. "All we had was passion and the love of the game. He taught us a lot. He is one of the best coaches I have ever had and ever will have. Everyone on the team has a great deal of respect for him."
While Lewis and the players are thankful for Rice turning the program around, Rice notes it was the attitude and dedication of the players which has turned Silver Creek into a respected team.
"That's the thing I am most proud of with this group," Rice continued. "They never let it get them down to the point the question why they are doing this. They kept believing. I think the big change is we saw a change this spring in Southern Tier Travel League. We won five games in the travel league. The year before, we won one game. Last spring was a huge boost for us. We played our first travel tourney in Clarence. We won two and lost two, but played a very good team. One game we were most proud of was a 3-0 loss to Lockport. In the Large School polls, Lockport is No. 2. It was a big boost to go toe-to-toe with a program like that."
And for the players, soccer is fun again.
"The bus rides home have started to become a fun thing," Lewis said. "It used to be parents would sign you out at the away games so we could ride home with our parents. Now we are all starting to ride the bus home. It's a lot more fun when you're winning. We all sit and talk about different stuff."
A key reason for Silver Creek's rising success is the fact the team has only lost seven total players over the last two years to graduation. The majority of the team has been together for three years and the chemistry amongst the starters has benefited the Black Knights.
THE FUTURE OF SILVER CREEK SOCCER
While Rice knew this was going to be a strong season for the team with his core seniors, he doesn't expect Silver Creek soccer to go back to where it was before he took over. His modified team has 21 players and is coached by former Fredonia State All-SUNYAC player Chris Prevet.
"I bring back seven starters," Rice said. "I have got a handful of quality players from the modified program coming up. We will be competitive. I think the biggest thing moving forward is we are never going back to 0-16 again."
And don't expect Rice to be going anywhere, anytime soon.
"I think it will certainly help the continuity," Rice said. "I remember as a player, there is comfort in knowing who runs the program. God willing, and my health stays good, I have probably 12 more years that I will be coaching girls soccer."
As for the players, they are proud to be Black Knights and thank Rice for his dedication.
"I'm really proud of our team and how far we have come," Lewis said. "He's the only reason why we have gotten here. I firmly believe if we didn't have him as a coach, we wouldn't be where we are today. A lot of our seniors have stepped up and lead better now with the guidance of Mr. Rice. We have come full circle and it's amazing to look back and see how far we have come. It's amazing and I am so proud of our team. I've been playing since I was 4. I am very proud of my school and I'm very proud of my town and our district. Our soccer program being where it is now is one of my biggest dreams coming true. We wanted this so bad and wanted our team to become this so bad. We, just from the bottom of all our hearts, want to thank him. We wouldn't have a team if it weren't for him. This program wouldn't exist if it weren't for him. He is a huge part of our lives. We are all super grateful."