YOUNGSTOWN — Change never fazed Drew Leardini.
Even when he made his varsity debut as a freshman, Leardini let his work ethic do the talking for him, willing to contest for loose balls and score or set up his teammates for plays, all while under the radar. And when he did speak to the team, as he got older, he made sure his words came at the right time and with meaning.
Whether it was forming a tandem with his cousin Robert Woods for two years or his Section VI-leading 99-point outing to lead Lewiston-Porter to its first state final four appearance since 1993 one year ago, Leardini was bound to impact the game — one shape or another — once the ball touched his feet and resulted in committing to St. Bonaventure earlier this month.
But after the first couple games, Leardini and his long-time coach Rick Sweeney agreed it was time to move the senior a little farther away from the net and become a constant presence around the ball. Tweaking his game one more time, Leardini agreed to fill Lew-Port’s role of attacking midfielder that was left vacant by the graduation of his long-time teammate and current Mercyhurst player Dom Massaro in June.
The once open spaces to create and score as a striker were now closed as opposing defenses were now prepared for Leardini, limiting his touches with the ball, and when he did, forcing him to go into one-on-three situations with little success.
The change from forward, a position he had played the previous three years on varsity, to more of a centralized role was one, Leardini admitted, was one he needed time to “get used to.” But he soon adjusted, and, as the senior leader surrounded by younger brother Luke and cousins Nick and Joe, Drew once again became a central part of the Lancers’ season, which included winning the A2 title over International Prep before falling to Williamsville South in the Class A crossover and on the doorstep of making consecutive trips to states.
While his numbers slightly decreased compared to his past output, Leardini still finished in the top-10 in the section in goals (32) and points (72). But it was the combination of talent, adjusting to a new role and impact beyond the boxscore that led to Leardini being chosen as the Greater Niagara Newspapers Player of the Year for a second straight season.
“Once I got used to (the switch), it was really good,” said Leardini, who credited his footwork as where he improved over the last year. “I think it helped us out in a lot of the close games where the ball needed to be won in the midfield, at the jump balls, the punts. We needed to just win the balls in the air. I think it really helped us.”
Even with Leardini’s position switch, Lew-Port recorded 14 wins, reaching double-figure wins for the sixth time in eight seasons dating back to 2016. Leardini started in all 20 of the Lancers’ and scored in 14 of them, including seven games with at least a hat trick and a four-goal and five-goal performance against CSAT.
In the postseason alone, Leardini recorded seven goals and 16 points, including a hat trick in the A2 championship game against the Presidents to record back-to-back sectional titles after moving up from Class B1 during the off-season.
Sweeney knows what it is like first hand being surrounded by talented play-makers on the field, as he played alongside Drew’s father, Andy, for Lew-Port, during his senior season in 1990. From the perspective of a coach now, sending Leardini back to the midfield resulted in his star player being in the “thick of the action a little bit more.” With eight new starters in Lew-Port’s lineup, many of whom were put into different roles, Sweeney said there was “more on” Leardini’s plate this season more than ever but that he rose to the occasion without hesitation.
“Drew’s a player that wherever you put him, you’re gonna be better off in that part of the field,” Sweeney said. “… I also felt that putting him in the midfield put him around the ball and also allowed him to emerge from the midfield and not necessarily begin to attack with his back to the net and have three guys on him. It’s a little easier for someone to be unaccounted for coming out of the midfield. You tend to win possession (and) a turnover or a loose ball quickly finds you. And, you’re going forward facing the net and you can have a little bit more time and space to be threatening.”
Before he continues his career as a Bonni in Olean, Leardini leaves big shoes to fill for Lew-Port and Section VI as a whole. In only four varsity seasons, Leardini tallied 219 career points and scored 90 goals, the latter placing him in a tie for 14th all-time with Maryvale graduate Pat Occhiuto, who last played for the Flyers in 1975. Plus, Leardini is one of only four players from the greater Niagara region to finish in the section’s top 15, including his father, Andy (second-leading 139 goals), Wilson’s Andy Wright (113) and North Tonawanda’s Steve Butcher (102), who all last played in the early 1990s.
“The four years here (have) been great under coach Sweeney,” Leardini said. “All the teammates that I’ve had throughout the years helped me in a huge way. The biggest thing to take away is probably just to keep going. Even when the odds might be against you, just keep going.”