By John Goralski
The shadows had already stretched across the high school field as Pete Gulli set the soccer ball down on the ground. Southington fans mingled with Simsbury fans on the hill behind the goal. Gulli had already forced overtime with his score during regulation, but there was no room for error when Gulli stepped to the line during overtime penalty kicks.
Almost 15 years have passed since that postseason battle against Simsbury in the state semifinals, but Gulli can still remember the pressure as he lined up that shot.
“There had to be about 100 people behind the net and on the hill, and we were behind in penalty kicks,” he said. “We scored. They scored. We scored. They scored, and the kid that never missed a penalty kick missed. Then, they scored, and it was up to me. If I missed, we’d lose. I remember spinning the ball and putting it down…”
Gulli might not be known to Southington fans for his high school scoring, but Simsbury players knew what they were up against. That summer, Gulli outscored every single one of them on their quest for a Nutmeg Games state title. Earlier that week, the Trojan coach had tried to intimidate the young Southington player during a chance encounter at Gulli’s family business.
Gulli looked left, lined up his shot, and outguessed the goalie with a shot to the upper right corner. Darren Prozzo, a leading scorer for the Knights, said that scoring was no accident for Gulli.
“He was a really good soccer player, but he’s Italian,” Prozzo said with a laugh. “He had a really good shot. He scored goals for us. He wasn’t just an assist guy. He really knew the game, and he was always in the right place at the right time. He knew the game so well. He always knew where he had to be, where the ball should go, and how to get it there.”
Southington soccer was on the rise when Gulli arrived at the high school. A few years earlier, the program had scored their first undefeated season. With a senior laden lineup, they were about to do it again. In those days, players would wait patiently for a chance to play as seniors or juniors if they were lucky. Gulli stepped into the lineup as a sophomore, and rarely missed a game.
He had raised eyebrows with a 20-goal season in his final year at DePaolo, but Gulli was shifted into various positions to help the high school team. He was a midfield, a forward, and a center at times. Wherever he was needed, Gulli would step in and do his job.
“He really created plays. He passed the ball a lot, and he was very unselfish,” said Prozzo. “As a senior, he pretty much controlled the ball in the midfield and dish it off to players like me or Brian Drexler or those other guys. He had a lot of assists. He played midfield and controlled the ball. If he saw an opening, he would take the shot or dish it off to me or someone else. He was a playmaker, but he was a finisher as well.”
His skills were no accident. While Southington players were floundering in the fledgling youth leagues, Gulli was battling the state’s elite. Long before Southington had a travel team, Gulli was leading the scoring in an Oakwood premiere league. He was attending camps and getting invited to state teams.
Every step of the way, Gulli was a leading scorer. He was a year-round player long before the age of specialization. He played against his older cousin, an all-state goalie at the time. He attended elite camps and always seemed to rise to the top even though he was under-aged and under-sized.
“You can’t do anything in this world without hard work,” he said. “Some people will say that you’re born with the talent, which is true, but you have to work at it. After practice, I’d go home and practice for another two hours because I knew that I was a young player playing with older guys all the time. I had to be sharp and on top of my game, so hard work is the way to do it.”
When asked to score, it seemed to come easily. As a ninth grader, he set a scoring record at DePaolo. Before his junior and senior seasons, Gulli was awarded the golden boot as the top scorer at the Nutmeg Games. He even led his team to a state title during the summer before his senior year.
As a sophomore Gulli clawed his way into a tough varsity lineup, and he scored nine times as Southington rallied for a 15-0 regular season record, an unprecedented fifth conference title in a row, and the program’s 200th win.
“It was tough because everybody expected me to do well. I came in for my sophomore year, and it was just me and one other person that made varsity,” he said. “It was sick. I remember being a substitute because our team was just stupid with talent, but it still seemed like every time I went in I would score or get an assist. It was great. We actually scored more points than the football team that year.”
Over the next two years, Gulli helped the Knights as a playmaker. Every season he scored at least nine times, but it was his ability to make those around him better that his teammates remember.
“He was a really good ball handler,” said Prozzo. “He wasn’t a guy that played with power. He wouldn’t plow through players. He was more of a finesse player.”
It didn’t take long for college scouts to come calling, and Gulli received offers from as far away as Florida Southern, the University of Boca Raton, Clemson, and the University of New Mexico, but Gulli opted to join the family business. He played a year with the Hartford Portuguese and the Waterbury affiliate before settling into his current career.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “All I wanted to do was play soccer and cut hair. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a dentist. I only wanted to play soccer and pick up girls.” he said.
His abilities didn’t escape notice from the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee. On Thursday, Nov. 8, Gulli was inducted into the local hall of fame at a ceremony at the Aqua Turf.
“When you think about how good the soccer players are that came out of Southington, it’s definitely a tremendous honor,” said Gulli. “To this day, it still surprises me when people that I talk to remember me. They remember me as a soccer guy 20 years later, and that’s pretty cool. It’s part of my heritage and my family’s heritage.”