Ryan soccer kick-starts toward future

Mike Bradby won just three regular season Catholic League games in his first season in replacing George Todt, but the Raiders have advanced to the league semifinals as the seventh-seed. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Even with the loss of 17 seniors and the only head coach the Archbishop Ryan soccer program has ever known, Jared Ott never once considered spending his senior season elsewhere.

Sure, there has been plenty of change in the last 12 months, but the way the Raiders’ keeper sees it, change can be a good thing and he saw it as his duty to oversee the transition from legendary head coach George Todt to first-year man Mike Bradby.

“I wish I could have won a championship for Mr. Todt,” Ott said. “Just knowing how he was and seeing how far he brought us, there was no thought in my mind that I was going to leave. I want to do it here. I want to make myself known here, not somewhere else.”

Last October, Ott was on the field when Todt coached his final game, a heartbreaking shootout loss to La Salle in the Catholic League semifinals. After 13 league titles, 650 career wins and having the soccer field at Ryan named in his honor, Todt walked away on top.

And even though his retirement was known during the season, it still plunged the program into an uncertain future, especially with the high graduation number and the exodus of talented holdovers like Michael Kirby, who opted to transfer to Holy Ghost Prep. Ryan underwent a transformation, a complete facelift in a punishing league that does not wait around for the rest of the competition to get acclimated.

As a result, the Raiders struggled out of the gate. The defensive unit, anchored by Ott and junior stoppers Joe Stock and Steve Gassman (a transfer from Franklin Towne Charter), has been stingy, but at times the youthful Raiders have had trouble scoring goals. They tallied nine goals and gave up 18 goals in 11 league contests, of which the Raiders finished 3–6–2, good for seventh in the Catholic League standings.

That may not sound like much to write home about, but progress indeed has been made. Ryan has lost games, yes, but many have been tight and not indicative of the team’s record. The Raiders fell to the top two teams in the league, Father Judge and St. Joseph’s Prep, 2–0, and played third-seeded Roman wire-to-wire before falling 1–0 on a late goal. They have been in games, which has given the team confidence as it headed into the playoffs, where they won a 1–0 first-round game over Conwell-Egan last Friday.

Then, in a Tuesday night quarterfinals shocker, Bradby’s Raiders stunned the Prep 2–1 in overtime, on a breakaway goal from Stock. The win set up a Saturday semifinals match-up with Judge, the city’s top team in 2013, who advanced to the semis with a 3–0 win over Bonner-Prendergast. The Raiders will certainly have their hands full with John Dunlop’s highly-skilled Crusaders, but Ryan’s built-in advantage is the fact that it hosts the semis and championship game on George Todt Field. Suddenly, a championship that didn’t seem possible a week or two ago is in sight, somehow someway.

“Anytime you take over a program, patience is required and results take time,” said Bradby, a former Raider under Todt and 1986 graduate of Ryan. “That being said, expectations when you play at Ryan will always be high. There are going to be speed bumps along the way. The biggest positives of this group are that they have bought into the foundation and structure that has been laid out now and going forward. They are playing for one another and understand that it is a privilege to play at Ryan and put on that uniform.”

Gassman, in his first season with the program, said the pride, tradition and history of the program was evident from the first day he stepped on campus, even with Todt (who still serves as Ryan’s athletic director) no longer pacing the sidelines.

“I’ve noticed there’s a big difference between here and Public League soccer,” he said. “Not just gameplay, which is always intense no matter the game; but the main difference is the crowds. At Ryan, and in this league, the crowds are crazy, everyone gets pumped up. That’s the main reason I play, for these guys and for our fans. I want to put on a show and I want to win. Every kid on this team wants to win. If we don’t, everyone is devastated. We’re wearing the black and red with pride now.”

One of the biggest reasons the program hasn’t suffered a monumental step back is Bradby, an alum of the program who understands how serious soccer is taken at Ryan. He is always encouraging in demanding the best from his players, something both veteran and younger players have responded to.

Bradby’s will to win, the players say, has been infectious.

“As a coach, he hates losing more than he likes winning,” Stock said. “I respect that more than anything else. I like winning, but losing sucks. We had a bit of a rough patch in the beginning, but now I feel like everyone is buying into the program 100 percent. Once you put on that Ryan uniform, that’s your blood. I wouldn’t want to put on any other one.”

Of course, having the extremely skilled Ott in net has helped ease Bradby’s transition. The vocally and physically imposing Ott — who stands at 6-foot-5 — doesn’t let much get by him in net. In soccer, you’re often as good as the individual standing between the posts, and Bradby couldn’t help but rave about his keeper.

“Jared is, in my opinion, the best goaltender in the state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “He commands the box the way a goalie should, and most importantly makes the key saves that keep us in games. He is directly the reason why we are moving forward in the playoffs.

“He is even a better individual off the field. He is very mature for his age and is the leader that all coaches in their respective sports would want on their teams.”

Regardless if the Raiders lose to Judge, or march forward to capture the unlikeliest of championships, the future is bright and the foundation is set for the Bradby Era. Younger players have continued to develop as the season has progressed, and although Ott will move on, holdovers like Stock and Gassman will return to make sure things stay on course.

Bradby may always be in Todt’s shadow to some degree; after 44 years and a scoreboard and field that bears his name, Todt’s lasting impression on the program is a good thing. It shows the excellence he demanded over his decades in charge, something that Bradby understands and hopes to replicate. At the same time, the new guy at the helm is about forging his own identity, one the school, players, alumni and fans can continue to be proud of.

“I desire championships like anyone would, and by doing things the right way, I like our chances of putting this program back on top where it belongs. There’s no identity issue at all. I can’t worry about looking back. The support since the day I was named the coach has been nothing but first class. I hope to make them proud.”

Count Ott as someone his coach has already made proud.

“Mr. Bradby has done a great job. We give 100 percent because of him and his desire to win,” he said. “I wish I could be a freshman again. I would love to play with these guys for another couple years.” ••

In good hands: In year one of a new soccer era at Archbishop Ryan, (left-right) Joe Stock, Jared Ott and Steve Gassman have left plenty of hope for a bright future under head coach Mike Bradby. ED MORRONE / TIMES PHOTO