(Photo by Brandon Chiarmonte / Upper 9o)
The Hilbert Hawks’ 2012 season was quietly as impressive a story as any in Western New York’s D-III community. Head coach Jeff Panik now heads into his third year in charge with plenty of upside and something new: expectations. The Hawks are no longer perceived as an also-ran in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and are behind just three teams in the 2013 AMCC preseason poll: Penn State-Behrend, Medaille and La Roche. Upper 90 traded emails with Panik as he looks ahead to 2013.
U90: Your team performed extremely well in 2012 considering the youth of your program, but you were confident before the year began. Talk about last season’s growth.
JP: “Last season was a pretty big step for us. I knew we had some talented players coming in and some returning guys who were hungry to prove themselves. I brought in a very good, experienced assistant in Rick Couell who was familiar with the program and the conference.
“There was a lot of desire to finally gain some respect for the program. I feel like we took some strides to do that and earn a better reputation for ourselves in our conference and within the Buffalo and WNY soccer community.
“Still, there were some things we felt we underachieved on. We scored our fair share, but gave up far too many goals and struggled against the teams with winning records. Those things didn’t go unnoticed internally and it stung a bit. We felt like we were capable of more. We know we were young and inexperienced, but we have high aspirations and the biggest thing we tried to emphasize and will continue to do so is to always push ourselves for more.”
U90: You’re predicted to be top half of the table by the coaches in your conference. What’s the ceiling for you guys? Do you think you can get in the discussion for a title?
JP: “As far as just how far we can go, I feel like anything can happen. We gained some momentum last year, but other teams in our conference are strengthening.
“We have a newfound sense of belief, but now we aren’t catching anyone by surprise like we did last year. Our focus is to just take things one step at a time, focus on getting better and strengthening our team environment every day, and letting the results come from what we put into it. With that said, I feel like if we reach our full potential, the sky is the limit.”
U90: Talk about a couple players we need to keep an eye out for…
JP: “I don’t like to talk too much about individual players, but I do feel like we have some guys who received some recognition last year and have continued to let that success motivate them and have worked very hard in the off season to help us try to get to the next level.
“Our center back, Michael Gee (pictured), was AMCC 3rd team last year and I believe he will be an anchor for us in the back again. Jon Davison was 2nd team and was a very pleasant surprise for us for just how well he did. I knew we were getting a pretty solid player, but he exceeded expectations and has worked really hard on improving aspects of his game that should make him a more well-rounded and dangerous player up front.
“We’ve got some other very determined returners, and another good-sized, talented recruiting class. I feel like for us we are going to rely on a very collective effort to try to be successful.”
U90: What have you learned about Western NY soccer since coming here?
JP: “One thing I have learned about WNY soccer since moving here 2 years ago is how tightly knit the overall soccer community is here. There are so many quality college and high school programs and a lot of adults with good playing backgrounds continue to play in the adult leagues.
“People within our game like to talk shop to each other about the game. I feel like everyone knows everyone to some degree, whether directly or indirectly. I really enjoy that aspect of things here and it has really made me realize the importance of doing things the right way within our program and as myself as an individual, as it feels like someone within the soccer community is everywhere!”