Community comes first for Pearl River's Galvano
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For Pearl River's Giovanni Galvano, the decision to play high school soccer wasn't solely based on, well, soccer. Instead, it was rooted in the strong, tight-knit community he calls home.
Giovanni, who played for the elite FC Westchester squad the past two years, was forced to choose between community and club when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy extended its season to 10 months.
“(FC Westchester) had been talking about the rule for a year or two,” he said. “Once I found out that it was going to be this year, I knew I had a decision to make. I was thinking about it through the high school and Academy season. It took a lot of thinking.”
Eventually, Giovanni's thoughts shifted toward his 12-year old brother Francesco, who was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia a year ago. And then he remembered the outpouring of support that flowed in from the Pearl River community.
First came the food.
When Giovanni's parents were forced to shuttle Francesco back and forth to North Shore-LIJ Cohen's Hospital in Long Island for treatment, neighbors put their chef hats on and helped out in the kitchen. Meals were delivered three to four times a week. Plate after plate arrived on what seemed like an ever-running conveyer belt of generosity.
"It got to the point that they had to slow it down a little bit because there was so much food being given," Pearl River coach Damon O'Keefe said.
Next came financial support.
It was around Thanksgiving of last year when O'Keefe and Pearl River varsity baseball coach Bruce Miller hatched the idea of a fundraiser. The event — which also helped raise money for the Tedesco family — was held in the Saint Margaret School cafeteria with the help of Mary Mulderrig, a teacher at the Catholic school.
Jeanne Tedesco, who was the mother of former Pearl River soccer player Jake Tedesco and also a teacher at Saint Margaret School, passed away from a heart attack last summer. She was survived by her three children and husband. Fittingly, the event was dubbed "A Day for Two Families."
Countless items were raffled off to help raise funds. When it was all said and done, both families walked away with sizable checks to help ease the burden of escalating expenses.
"My players understand what the community brings to them," O'Keefe said. "When you go to these functions, you have your whole team there. And I didn't tell them to be there. They were there cleaning up at the end of the night and helping out."
As a result, Giovanni decided to give back to the community that so selflessly opened its arms to his family. He returned the lifetime of favors the only way he knew how — by playing soccer.
"To give back to them through the sport that me and my family love is so special," said Giovanni, who plays alongside his brother Vincenzo. "Our community has given my family so much. And there's nothing like high school sports and representing your community.”
Like Giovanni, Francesco's a budding soccer talent. Eventually, he will likely wear the same No. 10 jersey as his older brother. As of now, however, the name of the game is getting healthy.
“He is in remission now and is doing much better," Giovanni said.
Francesco even got to lace up his cleats briefly this summer. On the last day of O'Keefe's local soccer camp, he took to the pitch.
"It was an uplifting and inspirational situation," O'Keefe said. "We tied it in to what life is all about."
It wasn't till June that Giovanni decided he would don a blue and white Pearl River jersey this fall.
"We weren't sure in May and April was an up-and-down time, but he chose to come back here," O'Keefe said. "Character-wise, you are talking about a great kid. He's passionate about his sport and his community."
But what about FC Westchester? What was their reaction to Giovanni's decision?
"They understood," he said. "Coach O'Keefe and I have a very strong relationship. There's no one like him. To play under him is something I take very seriously and hold very close to me. They understood my relationship with Pearl River."
Not surprisingly, his teammates were thrilled with his return. Striker Alex Castillo, who led the Pirates with 17 goals last season, built up a dynamite chemistry with Giovanni.
"He was pretty much the best player on the team and I love playing with him," Castillo said.
For Pearl River, Giovanni is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink. Last year, the maestro central midfielder flooded Section 1 with his vast array of talents, notching six goals and 14 assists to earn all-section honors. He was also named the Conference IV League B MVP.
Basically, Giovanni is to Pearl River as Xavi is to Spain.
"He has the ability to control the whole entire game," O'Keefe said. "He's highly unselfish, gets other guys involved and makes our strikers very, very dangerous. On the flip side, he becomes equally dangerous with his ability to take on guys one-on-one and get to the goal."
But wait, there's more. Giovanni is also a set-piece specialist, which means any direct kick within 25 yards of the goal generally ends up in the back of the net. He converted four of them last season.
Needless to say, the Pirates hope the return of their MVP leads to a Section 1 Class A title.
"It puts us in a situation where we can contend for a sectional championship," O'Keefe said. "Without Giovanni, that would be a very difficult task. Our whole formation would have been turned around and we would have been asking guys to play spots that they normally wouldn't have been playing."
In 2011, Pearl River put together a sparkling 14-2-2 regular season but came up short in the sectionals with a quarterfinal loss to eventual champ Lakeland.
"We all have a chip on our shoulder from last year," O'Keefe said. "We didn't play particularly well in the first 30 minutes of that game and we got caught for it. That's the way it goes and they are learning from it and hopefully it carries over to this year."
For the Pirates, it is now or never.
"I have been a part of some really good teams and each year we fell short," said Giovanni, who has been a starter since his freshman year. "Coming into my last year, we are hoping to do it. With the group that we have, it is definitely possible. We have a strong chance. We have guys that have experience at this level and it is going to be a good year."
Not all high school teams were as fortunate as Pearl River. Most of the perennial Section 1 boys soccer powers lost some key players to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's ruling.
Mamaroneck, in particular, lost four of its five Academy players. Juan Giraldo, a rising star primed for a breakout year, bucked the trend and returned to high school.
"Juan made the right choice," Mamaroneck coach Rich Becker said. "I don't think he did — I know he did. I have spoken to past players who specialized in a sport and they were very disappointed looking back on it."
According to FC Westchester President Lonny Unger, a total of 12 total Section 1 players chose to play for his Academy teams. He added that there were an additional five to six from Connecticut, six to seven from New Jersey and five to six from the Orange County area.
Section 1 players were also lost to other Tri-State Academy teams, including the New York Red Bulls and Albertson SC. There are a total of six teams represented in the Liberty Division of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league. Others include the New York Cosmos, Metropolitan Oval, BW Gottschee and Players Development Academy. Overall, the league features 78 teams from 10 geographical regions that comprise four conferences.
“You are talking about 1 percent of high school soccer players in the country,” Unger said. “This is only designed for elite players.”
Unger likened the Academy rule to what has been done in hockey and tennis, where most of the elite players eventually choose club over high school. He added the biggest impact would be felt five to 10 years down the road.
“The goal of the U.S. Soccer Academy is to make the U.S. the best in the world and bring us up to par with the European countries,” Unger said. “That said, there will only be a few players from the Academy to get to the national level. However, U.S. Soccer believes that college soccer will improve from there and just the overall level of soccer will improve.”
Looking back on it, Giovanni said the ruling never made a ton of sense to him.
"We are talking about two to three months out of the year," he said. "The Academy needs to do what they need to do, but I felt like it was plenty of time. Plus, it is great to play in two different environments. That is only going to help a player."
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of high school coaches weren't too keen on the idea of losing their top players.
"I don't know how you make a kid who is 16 or 17 years old make a decision of what they want to do with high school," O'Keefe said. "There's no better place than high school to play sports with your friends. The rivalries and the things like that and the passion for the game. At times, I don't think you get that in the Academy. In high school, everything matters and everything counts and they understand that."
Unger said he sat down with the Section 1 Coaches Association in June and discussed all angles of the ruling. Still, he understands why most remain dissatisfied.
“I don't think the high school coaches are still very happy about it,” Unger said. “Honestly, I see both sides of it. I had a son grow up as a very good high school player and he's a college soccer coach now. Had this opportunity arisen when he was playing, he would have chosen Academy over high school, but it would have been a tough decision.
“I see both sides of it, but we have been practicing since August 21 and I only see smiles on the kids who decided to play Academy. No one seems to be regretting not playing high school. But this is a select group of elite soccer players.”
Moving forward, losing players to Academy teams will be an annual problem for Section 1 coaches. O'Keefe is hoping Giovanni's decision sets a precedent in Pearl River.
"We are in a situation right now where we have two or three kids on our JV team who are definitely going to be in the same spot," O'Keefe said. “And we have an eighth-grader who has already made the Red Bulls."
In the now, it's all about making sure Giovanni still gets ample exposure to college coaches. He has already drawn interest from Mount Saint Mary's College and University of Hartford.
"I am on the phone constantly with college coaches," O'Keefe said. "We have people committed to coming to watch him play. We are hoping this is a transition to get more college coaches at high school games."
Giovanni said he would like to play college soccer, but he didn't seem too concerned with the future. Right now, he's exactly where he wants to be.
Email Isaac Cass at Icass@cablevision.com | Follow him on Twitter @MSGV_Icass