By Ken Lipshez
SOUTHINGTON — Southington girls soccer coach Mike Linehan had all his resources in a row when he embarked on a journey to reaffirm the program’s status in the meat-grinding CCC West and across the state.
The Blue Knights were on top in 2002 when they shared a Class LL state title with Fairfield, a team that Linehart said to this day is remembered around town as the Era of the Three Laurens – Lattanzio, Dziedzic and Forgione.
Linehan’s predecessor, Sal Penta, strung together seven memorable seasons before fortunes began to ebb. Six of the next seven seasons starting in 2009 ended with losing records. The last time the program won a game in the Class LL tournament was 2008.
Last year, Linehan’s third, produced a major step forward. After losing three of their first five matches, the Knights won eight straight, all by shutouts. But following a late-season draw with Conard, they were shut out in the last three games, including a 4-0 loss to Shelton in the tournament’s first round.
As Linehan’s first three seasons passed, more of the girls with whom he was familiar through youth soccer elevated to the varsity. This year marks the end of the four-season cycle, a landmark for any new coach.
After a 2-0 win over Hall last Friday, Southington took a 10-3-2 record into its regular-season finale with at Northwest Catholic on Tuesday. It proved to be a thriller. Down 3-0 in the first half, the Lady Knights got goals from Melissa Drexler and Taylor Hubert to close to within 3-2 by halftime. They got second-half goals from Kelly Doyle and Ally Carr to win it.
The game-winner, from the freshman Carr, came with two minutes to play.
Tuesday’s win sends the Knights into the Class LL tournament at 11-3-2. All three losses and both ties have come in the CCC West. At 5-3-2 in the division following the Northwest Catholic game, Southington finished with a plus-.500 divisional mark for the first time in six years.
“When we started our season, the goal was to get back to the tournament,” said Linehart, whose teams fell short of qualification in 2014 and 2015.
“We needed to do better against CCC West competition. We recognized we had work to do. We felt that we needed better positioning for the tournament. Last year, we made it in midseason, then we lost more than we won from the midseason until the end. We climbed the hill, then kind of rolled down the back side, and for all the kids and myself there for the first time, we were exposed.”
When the 2017 team reached the point where 2016 fortunes diminished, Linehan felt the need to talk to his captains, Abby Connolly, Hubert and Ariana Gazaferi.
“I told them our full frame of reference on how we think about and prepare for the tournament is different,” he said. “We have to look at games clearly, much differently than last year, when we felt we had accomplished so much. These games have to be like tournament games to us. We have to get into that tournament mindset, to position ourselves to make a run, not just make the tournament.”
Linehart has constructed a team with exquisite balance. It starts with the 10 seniors, some of whom played as freshmen on Linehan’s first team.
“This group will have many things to talk about,” he said. “We beat Northwest Catholic for the first time in a long time. It was our first time beating Avon. We want to be the first class to win a tournament game (since 1-0 win over Amity Nov. 4, 2008), and then another. They have a chip on their shoulder. That’s who we believe we are.”
Connolly and junior Alijah Vega are central defenders with lofty credentials. Alexa Imme and Jordan Beaudoin start on the outside. Junior Olivia Sherwood (10 shutouts) is the consummate keeper.
“Everything that happens starts with the back line,” Linehan said. “Everything that happens is a result of their leadership, organization and communication. [Connolly and Vega] never come off the field unless somebody gets hurt. With Olivia as a foundation, we’re built on our back five, but you’ve got to have a solid foundation.”
Vega should have that rare opportunity of becoming a three-time All-League player.
“Alijah plays at another level that you can miss if you don’t know the game,” Linehan said. “She leads the games well; she makes great decisions. I look at the talent as a technician and she stands at being one of the best. Knowing you have a player like that allows you to take risks.”
The midfield features depth and balance between those with license to attack the net and those designated as the “holding” variety.
Nikki Carter, Hubert and Doyle (7 goals, 4 assists) are veteran staples. Waves of young talent, including sophomore Emma Panarella and the freshman duo of Shannon Litchfield (8, 3) and Abigail Sowa, rotate in.
Up front, Natalie Verderame (8, 5) is most prolific, but Gazaferi (5, 4), sophomore Katherine Crouse (2, 4) and Carr (4, 2) can complicate the foes’ defensive strategy.
Fifteen Knights have scored goals and 13 have garnered assists.
“[The balance] is by design,” Linehan said. “Last year, we were dependent on a very few. It was built on the starting 11 and Verderame was a big part.
“We recognized that, in the latter part of the year, we were easy to defend when there’s only one scorer to worry about. Thais year, we had to have more than one that teams needed to be concerned with. I also felt we got tired. They had to buy into us being built on 18, 19 or 20, that they all were going to get playing time, and we’d be a stronger team in the final third.”
Thus, the time has come for the program to make a statement beyond the legacy of the Three Laurens now 15 years in the past. The community is believing.
“I have a great feeling about this group,” he said. “One teacher was at the Avon game standing next to [athletic director Greg] Ferry. The teacher wanted me to know what great kids they are in the classroom and how well they represent the program. We’ll miss the seniors as they transition out, but they want to make an exclamation point.”