SOUTHINGTON — A year ago, the Southington girls soccer team played for a state championship.
A year later, in the time of COVID-19, the Lady Knights might not get that same chance. A state title game is unlikely in the “postseason experience” that will cap the 2020 regular season, which in itself may or may not make it through to completion.
Whatever the top ring proves to be, be assured: Coach Mike Linehan and his girls aim to haul it in.
“We’re just going try to go for the biggest that we can go for, whatever that’s going to be,” as returning All-Conference senior forward Shannon Litchfield said. “We don’t actually know what it is, but as long as we can come out on top, it’s going to be our ultimate goal.”
In any season other than the unusual present, the Southington girls would be heavy favorites to be playing on Championship Saturday. They return 11 seniors and two key underclassmen from a 17-1-2 squad that was unbeaten until falling 1-0 to Glastonbury in the Class LL final. Only three starters graduated.
Granted, those three seniors were captains and cornerstones: midfielder Emma Panarella and defensive backs Kat Crouse and Jordan Beaudoin. But the wealth coming back is akin to owning all the properties in Monopoly from Kentucky Avenue to Go, with returning All-Staters Allison Carr and Abigail Sowa as Park Place and Boardwalk.
“We have a really good group of girls,” said Carr, who was cleared last month from the ACL tear she suffered during basketball season. “Our chemistry is so good. It hasn’t really changed from last year. We did lose three starters and they were a big part of our team. We’ve got to fill those gaps. We’re going to do our best and just take it away and see what we can do.”
Like all Connecticut high school soccer teams, the Lady Knights are now in their third and final week of 60-minute cohort conditioning and non-contact skill practices. The CIAC is due to review the state’s COVID-19 data at the end of the week. If the numbers remain good, the green light will be given for longer, full-team practices to run Sept. 21-30, with a 12-game regular season commencing Oct. 1.
The “postseason experience” would follow in the first two weeks of November.
Obviously, given the nature of the coronavirus, there’s a chance the season, even if it gets under way, could be halted at any time by a statewide spike in cases or an outbreak on a team. Schools could shut down.
That uncertainty has a way of altering perspective.
“We all know that nothing’s promised,” said Sowa, the reigning Record-Journal Player of the Year. “Even if we have a season, we have to look at it like, ‘That’s our last game,’ especially the seniors. We’ve all had such a good run together.”
For the record, this year’s senior class is a collective 44-7-4 since joining the Southington girls soccer program in the fall of 2017. A year ago, they were the nucleus of a team that scored 58 goals and allowed just six while posting 16 shutouts.
That’s what makes a 2020 season that is anything but normal so difficult to swallow.
“I’m disappointed for this senior group, to be honest with you,” Coach Linehan said. “This group has a chance to win it all. They’re talented and I hope we get a chance to do that.”
The first opponent the Lady Knights must confront is the virus. It’s a running battle that will require vigilance and sacrifice.
“When we set our goals for the year I told the girls, ‘No. 1 is your safety and for you to stay healthy.’ When that’s our priority, you don’t question this,” Linehan said.
“I challenged them: If you get a chance to go to a party and you recognize that there are others that you might not have been associated with over the past couple weeks, you’ve got ask yourself, ‘Is that as important as it was because I’m going to now take that back into our cohorts and maybe blow up everything?’”
The Lady Knights go 65 strong, senior class to freshmen. Linehan wants his seniors to have a final-season experience they deserve. At the same time, 2020 also has to be about developing the younger classes.
After all, there are going to be serious shoes to fill in 2021.
Start with Sowa. She is the linchpin at center midfield, a force on both offense and defense. A year ago, Sowa scored 12 goals. A year from now, she’ll be playing Division I soccer at East Carolina University.
“She’s probably one of the best players in the state,” Linehan said. “Will she be given an opportunity to help take this team to a championship level? I don’t know.”
Carr, a multi-sport standout, was in the vanguard of the Southington scoring machine last year. She scored a team-high 16 goals.
Her younger sister, Jessica Carr, put up nine goals and nine assists — as a freshman. (Jessica Carr and junior Maya Wroblewski are the two returning underclassmen with extensive varsity experience.)
Another major figure in the attack is Litchfield. Coming off a 15-goal sophomore season, she had nine goals last fall before a broken leg ended her junior campaign.
At the other end of the field, senior Emily Eigo is poised to be the full-time goalie after splitting time in net last year. Eigo got the start in the state final and was simply stellar against Glastonbury.
With the departure of Crouse and Beaudoin, there will be some new starters on defense in front of Eigo. They will be led by center back Marissa Imme and fellow senior Lauren Verrilli.
Morgan Hubert, Savannah Krom, Brianna Linehan and Talie Richardson — seniors all — will join Sowa in the midfield. Micaela Potomis adds additional punch up front.
And, yet, these positions are not set in stone. Linehan says his players are versatile, capable of manning multiple spots on the field. Consequently, he’ll employ multiple formations.
This dovetails with a new point of focus for 2020: in-game adjustments. In the wake of last year’s Class LL final, Linehan realized he played into Glastonbury’s hands by not shifting gears and going to a more aggressive set.
“In the final, I didn’t change,” Linehan said. “I told the girls we were going to learn from that game, win or lose. What we learned is we can’t be as predictable. We have to be able to come into a second half like that and change it up totally, just like a football team does.”
“We’ve got to have different looks,” Linehan added. “It’s a little different coaching when you’ve gone to the final and you’re not a secret any longer.”
True that. Everyone in Connecticut girls soccer circles knows about the Lady Knights. En route to last year’s final, they beat a team from the SCC (Amity) and two from the FCIAC (New Canaan and Ridgefield).
Linehan had hoped to schedule a few non-conference games this year against FCIAC clubs, but COVID-19 blew that up. In fact, it blew up Southington’s normal conference slate against potent CCC West rivals like Glastonbury and the West Hartford schools.
Instead, with conference schedules being revamped this fall to limit travel, the Lady Knights are in a regional “pod” with Avon, Bristol Central, Bristol Central, Farmington, New Britain, Plainville and Simsbury.
“No disrespect to all, but they’re not the CCC West that we’ve been banging with,” Linehan noted. “The competition is going to be different, so we’re going to have to look at it a little different.”
This regional pod could prove to be both regular season and “tournament experience.” If so, say the Lady Knights, let it be. They just want to play.
“We all just want to come back and win as many games as we can,” said Sowa. “Hopefully, if there is some sort of tournament-type structure, we can contend for something in that. We’ll take whatever we can get.”
“Being out here is the thing,” Carr remarked toward the end of the first week of cohort practice. “This season starts now. Whether it changes along the way, we’re still going to keep working our hardest. We’re going to go at everything like it’s the last thing we got.”