The brilliant high school soccer careers of Frontier FC captains Matt Clifford and Jonah Kozak did not end they way they might have envisioned. After completing a record setting regular season campaign that witnessed the Falcon kickers most on field success in decades; a battered, bruised, injured and severely weakened Frontier squad limped out of the ECIC Division 1 playoffs at the hands of an always dangerous Lancaster Legends squad.
Despite an unceremonious conclusion, the careers of Clifford and Kozak seem poised to take the next step to the collegiate level, but not before the hopes of garnering some personal hardware in the hope of All-WNY soccer accolades.
The thought of personal achievements, let alone team success seemed foreign when the two, then eighth graders, were called up to the Varsity squad for its short playoff run in 2014.
Since the mid-2000’s, the Frontier Boys soccer program compiled a paltry 58-105-20 overall record. Save for a few blips of success, the Bayview Road school was known as anything but a soccer hotbed. When coach Rich Kozak arrived five seasons ago, he witnessed a team culture in serious need of a rebuild.
Under the leadership of captains Clifford and Kozak the Frontier FC side finished with an overall record of 13-4-1. They achieved the best regular season record since 1952 and the team’s .750 winning percentage is the best in the school’s modern era. Only thee talented 1996 Falcons recorded more overall wins. (18 game season plus playoffs before New York State cutbacks in athletic scheduling)
Kozak states, “Kids were literally scouring the hallways looking for anyone to help field a team our first years here at Frontier. Soccer wasn’t an afterthought; it wasn’t a thought at all.”
When the time for a reboot of the program, the search for the future cornerstones of the program really didn’t need any searching at all. Matt Clifford had been a standout on Hamburg Monarchs teams for years and the Coach just needed to go down the hall in his own home to find his son Jonah.
In the ensuing years and seasons, both young men would put in the countless hours of training, games, weight room work, and travel to develop into two of the elite players at their position in the Western New York area.
For the past few seasons, Clifford has been plying his trade at the Premier Level for the WNY Flash. Clifford’s dynamic defending style help lead the 2018 team into the finals of the New York State Cup tournament. This year, Clifford returns to the Flash organization as the club makes its foray into ECNL competition.
Kozak has been playing at the Premier Level since 2013 and will also join the WNY Flash organization for his final scholastic club season. Last year his Empire Buffalo 18’s team made it all the way to the finals before bowing out of the national championships of the NPL, but the close calls for both young men only stoked a fire that carried over as a catalyst for their final high school campaigns.
Injuries hamper both competitors
As with any athlete competing at the highest levels, the reality of injury is always a specter lurking around the corner. As fate would have it, both Clifford and Kozak suffered through a rough “off-season” leading into their final high school seasons.
Coach Kozak lamented, “In our last indoor league game, we won the championship, but Matt suffered a broken ankle on a rash challenge. He was out for a couple of months and when he returned to the Flash, he developed a serious back injury that nagged him into the start of the season.”
Jonah Kozak on the other hand was sidelined on a freak play during a local BDSL men’s soccer league Cup game on what seemed like any other play. Jonah says, “I came out to challenge their center back and the ball was poked away from behind. The player followed through and caught my shin. It hurt but I thought it was a Charlie horse.”
What occurred was a broken leg, but contrary to the American perception of the frailty of soccer players, Kozak played the final 65 minutes on that broken leg scoring the game winning goal and assisting on an insurance marker.
The next step
Kozak’s grit and tenacity was not unnoticed by his Empire United Coach Luciano Gallo, “Jonah was a hard-working person with a lot of character. He would work hard and adapt to any position I asked him to play. He was always trying to learn and willing to help the team succeed.”
The 5-foot-10-inch central midfielder knows that the road to being noticed by colleges is a rough one. Jonah says, “I know I can help a program. I’m a team first player and I’d really like to keep playing and getting better each time I go out and train. When I was invited to train in Germany, I saw how hard you need to push yourself to play at a great level.”
For Matt Clifford, post season awards are welcome, but he’d most like to adapt to the next level of collegiate soccer.
“Take a look at my e-mail. You’ll see dozens of subject lines, and they all read ‘Matt Clifford.’ So many college programs want this young man for what he can do on the pitch, but I always make sure to relate Matt is more that just a great soccer player,” said coach Kozak.
Kozak continues, “Whenever a college coach calls, I make sure to add that Matt is a fantastic student and just a tremendous human being. He’s a consummate leader.”
“For example, everyone in WNY soccer circles knows Matt is a star. He’s the genuine, real deal, complete package. You know what? Look and see who is carrying the water. Look and see who is cleaning up practice bibs. Look and see who stays and hour after practice to work on individual skills; it’s Matt. For the past two summers, in every type of weather, Matt helped run our junior soccer camp mentoring our younger players. Truth be told, I never asked him to help. He just showed up and taught these kids every day,” said Coach.
Post Season Awards
Both Clifford and Kozak have already earned First Team All-ECIC Division 1 All Star Honors in both 2017 and 2018, but a seat at the coveted “All-WNY” table has been long sought after by both gentlemen. Their resumes have been crafted, and now it’s up to the All-WNY committee to see if they meet their tough criteria.
“Every coach we play against game plans against Matt. I think just that fact is worth more than just an award. I can’t tell you how many times we hear a shout to watch Number 23,” Coach Kozak relayed.
For two years in a row, Jonah Kozak led the regular season statistical standings for assists in the stingy ECIC 1 Division. In 2018, he ranks tops in overall regular season points, assists and top 7 in scoring in a midfield position with responsibilities of playing on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a playmaker but also can score the big goal when needed. No other midfielder in Frontier’s division ranks in the Top 5 overall in statistics.
Coach added, “Soccer isn’t just a game of statistics, it’s a game of thinking. Jonah does some incredible things on the pitch, but most of all, he makes his teammates better.”
Here’s to hoping both these young men get to reap the fruits of their labor.