GIRLS SOCCER 2017: All signs point to an all-in autumn
GIRLS SOCCER 2017: All signs point to an all-in autumn
September 7, 2017 09:23PM
By Ken Lipshez
SOUTHINGTON — When Mike Linehan took over as Southington girls soccer head coach in 2014, he had a vision that the growth of the youth program in town had the potential to usher in a stronger program at the high school.
The fourth year is a significant milestone because this year’s senior class was Linehan’s first. Having coached at the youth level before his Knights’ time, his familiarity with the girls creates a synergy that has heightened expectations after a strong 2016 campaign.
“This is a special year for me and it’s been pretty neat going through the early training sessions,” Linehan said. “We’re going to try something different this season, a little more dynamic. We have more experience and I can challenge them in a different way.”
His first graduating class will include captains Abby Connelly and Taylor Hubert along with Alex Imme, Ariana Gazaferi, Nikki Carter, Michaela Nanfito, Melissa Drexler, Deborah Hanigan and Erin Palinkos.
“They were a special group of freshmen then and I can’t believe they are seniors today,” Linehan said. “They were the first class to be introduced to the new program with new philosophies in how we play on the field to how we act off the field in representing themselves as student-athletes within the community. They played a major role in our success last year and I look forward to coaching them this season.”
The center of the defense features the All-CCC duo of Connelly and Alijah Vega, who have the creativity and skill to trigger offensive thrusts while protecting in front of keeper Olivia Sherwood.
“The two of them give us confidence,” Linehan said. “Alijah offers so much to a coach in creating options. They work so well together.”
Leading scorer Natalie Verderame (10 goals) returns. Katherine Crouse had six goals and two assists as a freshman.
Carter had five assists and two goals; Hubert three of each. Drexler and Emma Panarella also found the range three times, giving Southington offensive diversity that’s hard to defend.
The preseason, however, has given indication that Gazaferi may be the Knights’ most formidable weapon.
“She tore her ACL in the last game of her sophomore season. She worked very hard to come back last year, but she never regained her touch or her confidence,” Linehan said. “Based on the preseason, we have seen Arianna as her old self. ”
Southington has been shifted to the CCC West Colonial Division with the three West Hartford schools, Hall, Conard and perennial state title contender Northwest Catholic and will play each twice.
“We’re filled with a great deal of optimism,” Linehan said. “We believe our chemistry from last year was the backbone for our success and we are walking into this season with the same chemistry and level of confidence. We have the confidence, we have the experience but we’ll need some luck as well.”
With All-State quality players at the head of the attack and centering the defense, the Titans have high expectations to surpass the substantial accomplishments of last season.
Kelsey Burr scored 10 goals and had 13 assists last year and as a second-team All-Stater and All-SCC player will garner attention from colleges, her teammates and foes alike.
“Kelsey will be the player who will be most watched by other teams because of her ability to play anywhere on the field and score,” coach Rob Huelsman said. “She can strike the ball well with both feet and reads the direction of play to win balls or open up a defense to create an opportunity.
“Watching Kelsey play the last three years have been a relief that we’re not playing against her.”
What Kelsey gives, center back Sam Larkin takes from the opposition.
“She’s the reason we haven’t allowed many goals the last two years (24),” Huelsman said. “I’m sure with her varsity experience, she’ll be prepared to take on the challenge this season.
One challenge will be replacing Kaitlin Lagase in goal. The job is likely to be won by a sophomore or freshman. But Larkin is joined by a seasoned defensive crew led by a trio of experienced sophomores.
Burr won’t be alone at the point of attack either. Olivia Dubuc (15 goals), Julia Podchaiski (5) and Rayna Esch (3 assists) made vital offensive contributions.
The Trojans set making the Class L tournament as the primary goal this year and coach Tony Crane points to replacing Aquia Providence in goal as a leading factor.
“She will be very hard to replace and we’ll need to play solid defense to help out our goalkeeper,” Crane said.
A strong midfield reinforced by a talented group of underclassmen should increase the offensive output. Demiree Cyr was All-Quinnipiac Division and second-team All-SCC last year. She’ll team with Carly Jacobs in the central midfield.
Goals were at a premium last year (16 of the 25 bunched in 3 games), but Crane feels he has the answer.
“We are looking to Julia Blanchard and Ally Carbutti to get us on the scoreboard,” he said. “They are both very quick.”
Noira Zaim-Sassi, who went from JV to team captain, anchors a defense that will include a freshman contribution from Marissa Gudet. Kailee Puzzo is the heir apparent in goal.
The tune at Alumni Field has a familiar ring. Skilled players come, skilled players go and skilled players take their place.
The graduation list contained two girls who earned All-SCC and All-State honors. Of the two named All-Housatonic, one has departed, but there won’t be any heavy Housy hearts along the Rams’ autumn path.
“Despite losing several key players, including the SCC Player of the Year (Saige Bingman, now at Fordham), the expectation of this team is to build on last year’s success with a season that trumps last year,” Cheshire coach James Luis said. “The team has a nice balance of players from all classes. The pipeline is full of talented soccer players. The seniors are ready to step up and have breakout seasons.”
As far as finishers go, Lila McNamee (8 goals, 8 assists) was All-Housy as a sophomore. Jillian Klem scored nine goals as a reserve. Luis noted that she and Elizabeth Lurz are key to how far the Rams can go.
Kaitlyn Loura had five goals and four assists. Paige Perez anchors the defense in front of Sam Mathews, who split time in the net last year.
All-CCC star McKenzie Wrinn, the Record-Journal’s reigning Girls Soccer Player of the Year, has done everything for the Spartans but inflate the soccer balls. When she was needed in goal, she made 206 saves. When the offense needed a lift, she scored 10 goals and had three assists.
“McKenzie is going to be used in whatever way we need to keep the team in games,” coach Eoin McClure said. “She’s in the best shape of her life.”
Despite Wrinn’s performance, Maloney missed out on postseason play.
“We return a lot of veteran players and falling one game short of the tournament last year has our girls working extra hard,” McClure said.
The status of All-CCC defender Caitlyn Mayhew is in question as she recovers from knee surgery. Charlotte Lavin bolsers the attack. Regan Maloney scored three goals and had eight assists, splitting her time between the front and back.
A talented freshman contingent featuring Ellie Pergolotti should invigorate the program.
“She’s definitely going to be an impact player,” McClure said. “She’ll be involved in a lot of set pieces.”
McClure also mentioned Abby Lespier and Elizabeth Lambert as possible first-year contributors.
Spirit is on the upswing for the Panthers and helping the gears mesh for what coach Nick Dionne expects to be a season of improvement.
“I expect our team to be very competitive,” he said. “The team chemistry is fantastic; these girls really enjoy playing together.”
Elizabeth Garlock, one of two junior captains, is at the head of the class.
“It’s almost like having another coach on the staff,” Dionne said.
The other junior leader is Julia Misner, one of several to use the offseason to elevate her game.
Madison Chatman, the lone senior captain, will lend her athleticism to the attack. Her younger sister, Martha Chatman, has the versatitlity to play anywhere on the field.
“Since the end of last season, the whole team has been telling me how excited they were for this season to start,” Dionne said. “Now that it’s here, they’re ready to work.”
The Indians return a wealth of experienced players, especially up front where Katie Kearney (27 goals, 10 assists), Tatiana Gonzalez (7, 12), Citalli Rangel, Laura Cruz and Valerie Espinosa have played varsity since their freshman year.
“I’m very excited to return for my third year,” coach Lillie Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to staying healthy and being a gret representation of teamwork and sportsmanship.
“[Kearney] is our returning strength. She’s going to prove to be a force. [Gonzalez] is a quiet, but skilled competitor.”
Jailene Ruiz returns to the midfield for her third varsity season. Laurie and Erica Gomez played in the middle last season. Defense is the domain of Stevey Heath and Kaylene Gonzalez among others.
Sophomore Fortunata Micco makes her debut as the goalkeeper.
“She may surprise us all,” Johnson said. “Freshman Mylein Bennett will also add to the mystery of the season.”