Monday, April 13, 2015

Home improvement: McIntyre, Syracuse coaching staff bring in top-notch local talent to lead program turnaround

Alex Bono was sitting in Elizabeth Fox’s seventh-period Algebra II-Trigonometry class in February 2011, his junior year of high school.

He had been texting and calling his dad all day. It was finally time to make a decision.

“Whatever you want to do,” his father, Mark, said. “This is your choice.”

“OK, call up the staff and tell them I committed,” Bono said.

Bono was a part of a loaded trio of locally groomed players with Stefanos Stamoulacatos and Ben Ramin. SU and Empire Evolution assistant coach Jukka Masalin has watched all three play since he joined Syracuse head coach Ian McIntyre in switching from Hartwick College to Syracuse in 2010. Despite a miserable 3-12-1 record in 2011, Masalin and company were able to lure in prime local talent.

After earning a trip to the Sweet 16, Bono believes Syracuse is on the rise and that recruiting will continue to improve.

“Now I think that when people think of Syracuse they’re like, ‘OK, Sweet 16 last year. They’ve got a strong team, a lot of good players and they’re really on the rise,’” Bono said.

But when asked if Syracuse was his top choice all along, Bono didn’t hesitate.

“Definitely not,” he said.

Bono, a Baldwinsville, N.Y., native, was rated the No. 1 recruit in New York state by ESPN Rise dubbed him the sixth best goalie in the country.

He expected offers from his top choices such as Notre Dame and North Carolina, but they never came. Bono quickly realized that top-tier schools only reach out to top-five players.

Crushed by the twist in his trajectory, Bono was worried his recruitment would be a tedious and painfully slow process. The first day coaches could email recruits, though, Bono got an email from Syracuse assistant coach Mike Miller.

Bono grew up a Syracuse fan. Just 20 minutes from campus, he followed the basketball team, was interested in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and was OK with staying close to home.

He wouldn’t have minded going to Syracuse, but it simply wasn’t his top choice. Big East teams such as St. John’s, Villanova and Georgetown were also in the mix. He was on the fence about Syracuse. It didn’t give him a chance to compete for a national championship. That was his top priority.

“Off the bat, of course you say, ‘3-12,’” Bono said. “You almost write it off completely, wanting to win.”

Stamoulacatos, his Empire Evolution teammate at the time, bugged him nonstop, imploring him to commit to SU. Stamoulacatos had already committed to Syracuse a few months earlier and knew he and Bono could help turn the program around.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Bono waffled for a while, but eventually, as seventh-period Algebra II-Trigonometry rolled along, he decided to stay close to home. Now, he said, he doesn’t regret the decision at all and couldn’t be happier.

One main reason why Bono, Stamoulacatos and Ramin all chose to play for Syracuse was because of Masalin and the rapport they cultivated at Empire Evolution, an affiliate of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution. Empire Evolution comprises the most talented, budding stars from Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.

“You’re thinking, ‘We’re just an Upstate New York small club,’ but ultimately, little Mickey Mouse as we are, compared to some big (New York) Red Bulls or (Philadelphia) Unions, we’ve got some good players,” Masalin said, referring to the MLS teams.

Masalin coached all three players for their final two seasons with Empire. A standout goalie himself, Masalin helped Bono hone his goalkeeping techniques and worked to morph him from a good goalie to a great one.

“Our philosophy from day one from our coaching staff was to ensure that we had a chance to keep the best local talent home,” McIntyre said. “ … It sounds a lot easier than it actually is.”

After last year’s impressive run, Syracuse has scored another local recruit in Mike Koegel. He committed to Syracuse in January and was rated the No. 3 prospect in New York state by Koegel played with Bono, Stamoulacatos and Ramin, and was coached by Masalin with Empire Evolution for two years. McIntyre said he was invested in Syracuse from the get-go.

He went down to watch SU play Georgetown last season, and even graduated from Chittenango (N.Y.) High School a semester early to join the Orange. This spring, he has practiced with the team and gotten a feel for college soccer a few months early.

Syracuse’s recruiting is on the rise, and Bono, Stamoulacatos and company played a massive role in helping turn the program around.

“If you’ve made it into the top 16 teams in the country and you’re in the (Atlantic Coast Conference), you’re going to be pretty attractive,” Masalin said. “If you’re not, I think there’s something wrong with it.”

But the coaching staff still couldn’t reel in five-star recruit Jordan Allen, the No. 4 prospect in the ESPNHS 150 in the Class of 2013. Allen, a Rochester native and member of the U.S. national team, chose Virginia – a proven program that perennially makes the NCAA tournament – instead. The Cavaliers won it all back in 2009 and boast a reputation that Syracuse aspires to achieve.

Last season’s surprising surge was an enormous step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot more work to be done, Masalin said. Syracuse will likely play Virginia next season and go up against Allen.

Allen is the exception, though, not the norm. Not anymore, at least. With Bono and Stamoulacatos as cornerstones, the coaching staff thinks it can continue to attract local players as the team becomes a national powerhouse.

“We were fortunate to have Stefanos and Alex and Ben coming through the ranks at the right time,” McIntyre said. “I think the future’s very bright for our program.”

Published on April 14, 2013 at 10:55 pm
Contact Trevor: | @TrevorHass

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