By John Goralski
Coach Lou Gianacopolos still flinches when he’s asked about Southington’s loss in the state semifinals last spring. They were leading late in the game. They were one point from a championship berth, but somehow managed to fall.
It has plagued his every thought for the past 10 months.
“If you look at the stats—and I’ve been looking at them from that day through today—it always comes down to game five, 15-17,” he said. “We had game five at game point for us, but had two hitting errors changed the momentum, and Glastonbury won. It was a really hard-fought battle, and we could have very well gone to the finals.”
Mistakes are rare for Southington’s spring power. State championship games are expected at the start of each season. It doesn’t matter that the Knights have graduated every starter from last year’s team, Gianacopolos expects this year’s squad to finish what they started.
Sure, the Knights have graduated every starter from last year’s team. Sure, the starting roster will be filled with new players, but that was last year’s problem not this year’s obstacle. The coach is still smarting from the loss, but so are all his players.
“If you do it right and don’t just play your six starters, you won’t have guys that are nervous in the big game,” said the coach. “I’ve never looked at it as reloading. This is another very good, four-senior team with a lot of juniors. We have some varsity returning players, but they weren’t varsity starters. A lot of them got their time in during the season, so they’re comfortable in their starting roles.”
Gianacopolos doesn’t expect to miss a step, and why should he? Even with the loss of nine seniors from last year’s team, Southington returns a full roster of varsity players. When opening day arrives, the Knights won’t miss a step.
“We keep our practices moving, and our practices are often faster and more challenging than our matches. This year will be the same thing. What’s going to make our first team do well is to have a second team that’s pushing them.”
In fact, Gianacopolos expects this team to be harder hitting and faster moving than the team that went 16-2 in 2013. The passing should be as crisp. The serving will be as strong, and the net play will be more dynamic.
It will start with senior co-captains Dan Connolly and Dave Shaughnessy. One will lead the offense, and the other will anchor the defense.
“They are two strong captains, but those other two seniors have captain qualities as well,” Gianacopolos said. “This is going to be a team that’s even more exciting than we’ve been in the past because we’re small, but we’re going to out-perform bigger teams. We’re young. We’ve only got four seniors, but we have a lot of good juniors below.”
Connolly will lead the attack at the net as an outside hitter, but it’s anyone’s guess who will be Southington’s front man on the other side of the net. Mark Horanzy, Ian Powell, and Pat Straub have all been competing for the other hitting spot. Gianacopolos said that the competition has raised everyone’s game.
“All three of them are quality outside hitters,” he said. “It’s just going to come down to which one will push the rest of them. They’re all physically gifted, but I’m looking to see who will communicate the best and want to take charge.”
Southington has depth at every position. Adam Brush and Nate Keen are battling for the middle position. Shaughnessy has junior libero Tom DelBuono matching him step for step in defensive drills. Adam Brush is the likely middle because of his size (6’4”), but Nate Keen is matching him in scrimmages with his team-leading vertical leap. Peter Masters should be the team’s starting setter, but Adam Viviano is proving to be his equal in practice.
Once again, Southington’s second team will be as good as its first.
“Our goals are no different than any other year,” Gianacopolos said. “We want to control the ball to do what we want to do with it. We don’t want to let other teams put us in the positions that they want. Our goals will be to serve tougher than we have in the past and to control the ball.”
Once again, Southington will have one of the toughest schedules in the state. The non-conference schedule will kick off right away with road games at Bloomfield and Daniel Hand. In early May, Southington will join Staples, Ridgefield, and Oxford in a mini-tournament that includes four of the top teams in the state. Then, the Knights will try to defend their regular season conference title in one of the strongest conferences in the state.
When the postseason arrives Southington will already be battle hardened, but this season marks the first CCC conference tournament, and that will allow the Knights one more chance to hone their skills against the top teams in the state.
“It’s the same thing we always do,” Gianacopolos said. “We mentally prepare our boys to strive to be a final four team. We did that last year, and we have the same goals this year. You never know once you get to the final four. You can never predict that you’ll be in the state championship match, but you’ve got to play hard to get to that point.”
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