SANDY CREEK — T.J. Reff doesn’t allow surrounding circumstances to hinder his drive to become a college soccer goalie.
The Sandy Creek junior shined as the full-time starting goalie despite the overall struggles of the combined Sandy Creek/Pulaski boys soccer team this season, recording more than 100 saves while garnering Frontier League All-Star honors.
Also, Reff has excelled in goal as a dedicated, year-round soccer player despite being born with Poland’s Syndrome, a condition in which the umbilical cord was wrapped around his right hand prior to birth so his fingers never fully developed. Reff does have full wrist and bone development on both arms.
“I know when I first started I thought I was like bottom of the team and would never start, and I’ve just practiced harder and harder every chance I get,” said Reff, who recently concluded his third varsity campaign for the Comets. “I keep practicing and I’m proud of where I’m at now and hope I can stay there.”
The son of Jason and Lisa Reff — Thomas Jason, most commonly referred to as ‘T.J.,’ — is one of six siblings that play the sport avidly, often together on the self-made soccer field in their backyard.
T.J. Reff is the fourth boy in the family and his older brothers Tyler, Corey, and Collin all played varsity soccer for the Comets under coach Steve Olson. His younger brother, Noah, was a freshman on the varsity team this year while his younger sister, Ceanna, plays for the youth program that has been organized by Lisa Reff for the past six years.
T.J. Reff played for his first youth soccer team in the district at age 5 and has been committed to the sport ever since. He also runs track and field for the Comets in the spring, specializing in sprinting and jumping events, and previously played modified basketball and baseball for the school.
Reff also played Little League baseball as a pitcher and second baseman before deciding to focus his energy on pursuing his dream of playing college soccer.
“We found out (about Poland’s Syndrome) very early on and having three older siblings, he just never stopped,” Lisa Reff said.
“We’re very proud of the way he’s handled things and come around, and he works very hard at it,” she added. “He plays year-round. He takes about two weeks off in the summer and then starts back up.”
Reff mostly played midfield or defense during youth soccer but opted to try out in goal after being promoted to the varsity team as a freshman. He did so after admiring the play of his older brother, Corey, who filled the position for the Comets earlier this decade then played at Mohawk Valley Community College.
“My job was making passes to set up other people to score goals, and so when I got to varsity I immediately wanted to try goal because that’s what my older brother had done, so I picked it up from there and started playing more goal on my recreation time and it just built from there,” Reff said.
“He played all through high school and when I watched him I was just in awe, he was an amazing goalkeeper,” he added. “He played a year of college at Mohawk Valley and he was a freshman so he didn’t get much playing time but when he did, he was everything I wish I can be as a goalie.”
Reff shared time at the position during each of his first two varsity seasons but finished with at least 123 saves as the full-time starter this year for the Comets (1-14 overall), according to stats reported to the Watertown Daily Times and syracuse.com.
He helped lift Sandy Creek/Pulaski to its first win after three straight winless seasons by claiming a 3-1 victory over Sackets Harbor on Sept. 18. Reff held the Patriots scoreless during the second half while his team rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit.
“I had my first win for the varsity team about midway through the season,” Reff said. “It definitely felt good to win a game, it had been a while, but for that game we came together as a team and it just clicked. … It was incredible. We had more people in the stands than we had in a while, and after the game, everyone was hugging each other and just screaming, shouting, having a good time.”
Reff registered a season-high 25 saves during a loss to General Brown on Oct. 8, which was another personal highlight performance due to pre-existing friendships with several Lions players.
“I have a lot of friends who go to General Brown so it was just nice to be able to play against them and some people I knew, and I played decently well at that,” Reff said.
Reff will soon begin his winter indoor soccer season at the Watertown Fairgrounds YMCA as a goalie for the Upstate United club soccer team. He also travels to tournaments and college showcases with the squad during the summer and competes in the state summer soccer league.
“He typically can read the play very well and he understands the angles of where people may or may not want to shoot, he has good positioning,” said seventh-year Sandy Creek/Pulaski varsity boys soccer coach, Steve Olson. “I would say he’s a hard worker and a motivator. ... He really can play wherever, doesn’t matter where you put him.”
Reff is interested in studying film and cinematography in college but said that he will prioritize pursuing a college soccer opportunity.
In the meantime, he is focused on preparing for a potential strong senior campaign for the Comets next year, during which he aims to reduce his number of goals allowed and help guide Sandy Creek/Pulaski to some additional wins.
“It’s been fun, to say the least,” Reff said of his time in the program thus far. “There have been some tough games where you can feel like it’s me against the other team but I always know that it’s always my full 11 guys on the field supporting me.”
He added: “I think I’ve grown really well these past few years playing for this team. I know we aren’t obviously the best team in the league by any stretch but we’ve always had the support of our parents, friends and family. They always come out to the games and the school supports us a lot, too, so it’s just nice to have that on your back.”
THE REFF FILE
Grade, age: 11, 16.
Other activities: Varsity track and field, club soccer.
Family: Parents, Jason and Lisa; Brothers, Tyler, Corey, Collin, and Noah; Sister, Ceanna.
College plans: Undecided. Wants to play soccer, study cinematography.