Neil Berniker has coached boys soccer at Horace Mann for 47 years. In close to five decades, two players have risen above the rest – Charles Alcheck, a ’00 graduate who went on to star at Harvard, and current senior Max Fikke.
“He’s our bread and butter,” Berniker said of Fikke, one of a select few he has brought onto the varsity as a freshman, and leads the Lions with 12 goals this year. “As he goes, we go. He’s a dominant player.”
Consider Wednesday afternoon the latest such example.
Fikke, a center midfielder, scored twice in a commanding, 2-0 win over bitter rival Poly Prep in Bay Ridge, as Horace Mann rebounded from its first league loss to Dalton last Friday.
“It was a major win,” Berniker said. “We could’ve folded up the tents. It shows we have the ability to come back from a tough loss.”
It was an important victory on several levels for the Lions. First, it solidified their standing atop the Ivy League. Second, beating the Blue Devils is particularly important, considering the way the last two seasons ended: losses in the NYSAIS final to Poly Prep.
“Every time we play them, we’re more inspired than any game we play,” sweeper Josh Miller-Lewis said. “It showed Poly we can beat them on their field and it sends a message to the whole league we’re not gonna step aside after one loss.”
Said Fikke: “I love playing against Poly. I love the rivalry, I love the environment, I love the Poly fans, who are always heckling me.”
Horace Mann (10-1), the two-time regular-season Ivy champs and its current leader, enjoyed a decided possess advantage in the first half. It had been rebuffed by Poly Prep (8-3-1) keeper Richie Carbone until Fikke struck in the 33rd minute. Taking advantage of a misplay, he dribbled around a few defenders and beat Carbone near side. He added the all-important second tally on a sensational individual display before beating Carbone again, four minutes from full time.
“I didn’t feel I was playing my best recently and I used that to my motivation,” said Fikke, who is being recruited by Amherst, Cornell, the University of Chicago and Brown. “It really showed our resilience; this is a team with high standards.”
The Blue Devils had their chances in the second half, but didn’t get many clear shots as Horace Mann keeper Matt Citak, a converted fullback. That was because the Lions’ backline, anchored by Miller-Lewis, held strong, clearing the few prime scoring chances.
The play in back, overall, has been steady, Berniker said, with returning starters Sam Hertz, Keane Ehsani and Brenton Arnaboldi comfortable with one another. The return of midfielder Ben Levander from a torn calf muscle, also added depth to the Lions’ starting unit, which includes seven returning starters from last year’s club.
It is why Wednesday’s victory was so important, as far as confidence goes. Horace Mann has set out to right its wrong of the last years two years, when it beat Poly Prep twice during the regular season but fell short in the end.
“We can’t let that happen to us again,” Miller-Lewis said.
Though noting this year’s script is similar to the last two, Fikke said the difference is the current ensemble’s experience. Several of the seniors know only NYSAIS state title heartbreak, a motivating factor. The only way to change that, to claim their first title since 2005, is to continue the current pace.
“We got to keep doing what we’re doing and not get too worked up over that,” Fikke said.