Unlike many of the larger schools in the New York City public school system, Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to filling out rosters for its sports programs.
At a school like RKA — with an enrollment hovering around 600 students — coaches are often limited as they search for athletic talent. But that doesn’t mean they don’t find it right there in their own building.
Sometimes they just have to be creative. And persistent.
Take the Tigers’ boys soccer program for instance. Head Coach Will Cushing, a history teacher at the school, has an unusual system in uncovering talent.
“We have a middle school at RKA, and I do as much ’recruiting’ as I can,” Cushing said. “We’re not allowed to take kids from outside our district, but there are a lot of teams around the city where coaches can recruit, and they’ll meet kids that are playing for club programs. But I can’t really do that because I can only take kids that are zoned for us.”
The middle school, however, gives him an advantage.
“Whenever I’m walking to and from the copy room, I’m looking at any kind of international-looking kid in the hallways, and I’m like, ‘Hey, do you play soccer?’”
That’s how he found Rronaldo Kocaj.
“He’s an interesting kid,” Cushing said. “He came from Albania when he was in the eighth grade, and he was brand new to the country. He arrived not knowing much English at all, so I got a student in our school who is Albanian and I asked her to translate for me because this kid looked like a soccer player. So I got him to try out and he played well his freshman and sophomore years.”
After sitting out last season to concentrate on his academics, Kocaj is back, and Monday afternoon he scored both Tigers’ goals as RKA remained unbeaten on the season with a 2-0 victory over IN-Tech Academy.
“He was the difference,” Cushing said. “Those two goals he scored, you can’t teach that. That was his individual brilliance. To get open the way he did and to finish low and hard, that’s what you want to do. It’s special having him back after not having him last season.”
After playing to a scoreless tie in the first half, the Tigers (5-0 in Bronx B-II Division) got on the board in the early moments of the second half when Kocaj knocked one past IN-Tech goalkeeper Ronald Flores for a 1-0 lead.
It looked like the game would end that way as neither team could get untracked on the offensive end. But then Kocaj struck again, this time with nine minutes to play, and that was all the Tigers would need to remain atop the division.
“It felt great coming back,” said Kocaj, who now has six goals on the season. “We’re working hard and playing great so far. We’re just trying to keep our winning streak going and try to stay undefeated. It feels great, and it means more to me now that it’s my last year.”
The victory also clinched a postseason spot for RKA, the defending Bronx B-II champions.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that we’ve made the playoffs every year since I’ve been head coach,” said Cushing, who took over the program in 2005.
But while making the postseason has been an annual ritual for the Tigers, a long stay in the postseason has been harder to come by. Cushing thinks this could be the year all that changes.
“We just haven’t gotten over that hump and made a long run,” Cushing said. “We’ve been near the top in our division, but we tend to run into a team from Queens or Manhattan in the playoffs that are tough. So I’m wondering if this is the year we can go a few rounds in the playoffs. That’s the next level we want to reach.
“As proud as I am for being consistently strong in our division, we’ve never really made much of a deep playoff run, so we’re looking to maybe get to that next level and make a deeper run.”
But that’s something to be concerned about at the end of the month. Right now the Tigers have five games remaining in the regular season with two against a Taft High School team that is chasing RKA for the division title. In fact, the two teams play twice in three days later this month, games that will go a long way toward deciding who will wear the division crown.
“We’ve talked about those games and we’re ready for it,” Kocaj said. “If we keep working hard, I think we can beat them and win the division again.”