Kennedy soars after hitting rock bottom
Nine inexperienced athletes play key role in turnaround
When a team suffers a winless campaign, there’s nowhere to go but up.
That’s exactly what the John F. Kennedy boys soccer team has done after finishing 0-15-1 in 2020.
Featuring nine players who have never competed in varsity soccer, the Eagles have posted a record of 9-5-1, winning the Portage Trail Conference regular season title during the process in their first year in the league.
It’s been a surreal ride for sophomore Michael Condoleon, one of the fresh faces who hadn’t been on a soccer field since he was 11 years old.
He’s now the team’s leading scorer with nine goals. A basketball player and member of the state champion baseball program, he was asked to join the program.
His older sister, Caitlyn, helped the girls soccer program win its first district title two years ago, a bar that Condoleon feels is high.
“It really impacted me because they started from the bottom up, (Caitlyn’s) freshman year, they were like us last year, they weren’t that good. Her and three other seniors in that grade with her, that kinda built that program up from the bottom,” Condoleon said. “I kinda just wanted to do the same.”
Coach Anthony Ledenko was an assistant coach on that girls team, taking over the reigns of the boys soccer program last fall.
As a 2015 Kennedy graduate, Ledenko said a culture change was in order, wanting to bring respect back to a program that had made two trips to regional finals in the past.
“You see a lot of these programs at this school do well, and then you see one that’s not doing well, and these kids want to be a part of something — they want to change the culture,” Ledenko said. “Some of these guys played when they were really young. They haven’t played in maybe three or four years, but they weren’t doing anything in the fall. They didn’t play football, so they had nothing else going on.
“I said, ‘Give me a chance,’ and they bought into it since Day 1.”
The Eagles didn’t start off on the right foot against Girard, when two out of the three captains on the team sustained substantial injuries during the 2-1 road win.
With juniors Sam Bolino and Sarosh Seth out for a majority of the season, the lone healthy captain, junior midfielder Giorgio Femia found himself needing to be that veteran voice with 13 underclassmen on a 19-man roster.
“I knew we were going to do great things this year, and I watched both of them in an instant, and it was horrible for me,” Femia said. “I heard both of the injuries when they happened, and it was very emotional.
“But this team, they’ve come a long way, they’ve all built and they’re all with me on this.”
Having the varsity experience needed to compete and cause change on the field, Femia had the task of helping the nine guys who haven’t played high school soccer before.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as finding the right guys at the right place, at the right time.
“We saw the athletic kids, and we positioned them in the places that we saw they’d be best at,” Femia said. “Like Nico (Ciminero) our goalie, he has great hands, we saw that from Day 1, and we were like, ‘Hey, maybe he’s our guy.’ So we put him at goal, and he’s done an amazing job this season.
“Just stuff like that, we see how athletic they are in certain areas of the field, and that’s where we put them.”
Ciminero, a sophomore, doesn’t watch soccer on television. He rarely plays the FIFA video game, and he doesn’t even follow the sport as a whole.
What at first began as nothing more than a way to stay in shape before basketball season, Ciminero tallied 145 saves and five clean sheets through the regular season.
He’s the anchor for a Eagles defense that allowed just 28 goals this season after giving up 123 in 2020.
“I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect because we obviously wanted to start off the year with a win, and I didn’t want to be the reason that we lost,” Ciminero said. “But I just wanted to go out there and trust my athletic abilities and instincts and my teammates, they played a really big part. And we won, so we’ve just been sticking to that.
“I feel way more confident and way more comfortable. My feet have gotten a lot better — that was a big thing in the beginning of the year, just knowing the game really.”
Of course, being victorious helps develop a love for the game, too.
“I feel like you always find a love for winning in general, and we’ve been winning. We’re only losing two dudes, so I’m going to be with the rest of these kids for the rest of my high school career in soccer. So I’ve definitely found a passion for the game,” Ciminero said.
Kennedy features two sets of brothers. Freshman Dom Ryan is second on the team with six goals, and his brother Nick has two goals and three assists. Both Giorgio and Giovanni Femia have a pair of assists each.
The fifth-seeded Eagles host the first round of the Division III Niles 1 District against seventh-seeded Champion on Saturday at 4 p.m.