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Lions roar to the top

Instead of spending the summer lounging on the beach or relaxing with family on vacation, the Lehman boys soccer team used the months of July and August to improve.

The Lions met every day at Pelham Bay Park for impromptu pickup games.

“We built a lot of team chemistry,” senior Dillon Milton said, looking back.

That camaraderie has manifested itself in an undefeated start to the season after Friday’s afternoon’s commanding, 3-1 victory over Evander Childs.

Milton said the team had gotten together in previous summers, but nothing quite like this past one. Facebook messages were sent out. There was no miscommunication; everybody made sure to be there. And nobody complained.

“We love the soccer pitch,” center midfielder Sam Aghahowa explained.

The sudden sense of urgency had to do with the makeup of the team. Of the 21-man active roster, nine are seniors, including striker and leading scorer Simon Kim, center midfielders Max Berterame and Aghahowa and right midfielder Aldo Pllumaj. The Lions (6-0-1) are experienced and mature. For many, last fall was their first year as starters. Now, they are established.

“Because we have a lot of seniors, we have a lot of heart,” Kim said.

They understand the game – and each other – better. It has bred an unselfish, pass-first unit. Less dribbling, more talking. That’s highlighted by the play of Berterame and Aghahowa at midfield, a duo coach Pat Straw called the club’s catalyst.

“They control the game,” he said.

Kim said in past years there were only a few teammates he fully trusted cutting down the field.

“Now I have all the options,” he said.

“They seem very hungry and they work well together,” Evander Childs coach Toma Gojcevic said. “They don’t just put one, two, three passes together. It’s three, four, five, six. They switch field well.”

The only question mark was the play in net of Mendim Gashi, an inexperienced keeper. For the most part, Gashi, only a junior, has done his part, aided by center fullback Ivan Berterame, Max’s younger brother.

“He’s making a couple of mistakes, but they don’t happen again,” Straw said. “He’s talking more and controlling the back.”

Straw was pleased with the play of his team, which received goals from Aghahowa, sophomore midfielder Oscar Sosa and senior midfielder Jonil Memaci, on Friday. It washed away the uneven performance of a week ago. Playing without Kim and Sosa, the Lions squeezed by Bronx Science, 2-1, but tied one-win DeWitt Clinton, 2-all.

The draw placed added importance onto next Wednesday’s much anticipated rematch with defending Bronx A champion Columbus. Lehman won the first meeting between the two teams, 2-0, at Columbus Sept. 13. Afterward, coach Jason Renick said he felt the Explorers got the better of play, but were unable to finish. Straw countered by calling it an even game.

The victory over Columbus did a lot for the Lions’ confidence. Days later, they were talking about possibly facing Martin Luther King Jr., the three-time defending city champion, one day in November. It also backed up Straw’s preseason boast to his players that they could be the best team in the five boroughs, a yearly tradition.

“From there,” Milton said, confidently predicting the future, “we knew we would take the division.”

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