By John Goralski
Groups of three weave across the turf field in perfect precision, juggling lacrosse balls in an endless procession until Coach Ron Chase spies a group of freshmen struggling to complete their passes. “Again, again,” he urges, forcing them to return to the end zone to make another attempt.
Chase watches them like a vulture eyeing his prey. Each time they dropped it, he sent them back to the start. Finally, they cross midfield and the hint of a smile breaks across his face.
“I know that you think I’m being hard on you,” he yells, “but we have to make our passes.”
Chase might seem demanding to a casual visitor to the high school complex, but there’s a method to his madness. He stresses fundamentals. He demands full effort even during his warm-up drills. There are no smiles during a boys lacrosse practice…smiles are for postgame huddles.
And there were a lot of smiles last spring. That’s what winning does.
“It was a really fun year,” Chase said as he watched the young trio march across the field without dropping a single pass. “Basically, it was the best year that our program has ever had, but every year has different expectations. Last year, we kind of changed our philosophy. Our focus changed from just making the playoffs to taking it one game at a time, and we’re going to do that again.”
And why not? It worked in 2013. From the opening whistle, the Knights began to turn heads. They opened the season by upsetting Cheshire. They continued on a torrid pace as the Knights put together a string of double-digit scoring performances. The longest losing streak was one game as Southington raced to a 12-4 regular season record, and the boys were just getting started.
For the first time in program history, they advanced to the semifinals in the conference tournament. In the weeks that followed, the boys surged into the Class L quarterfinals. That excitement spilled into the off-season. With a small army of returning players, the Knights expect to pick up where they left off.
“Last year was a lot of fun,” said Chase. “The guys gelled well together. They took it to heart, and they did what they had to do to be successful. We lost a couple of key guys, but a lot of our guys are back.”
The attack is littered with high-octane scorers, including last year’s top scorer Kevin Cop (80 points). Jarod Florian (31 points) scored 18 goals as a freshman. Alex Jamele (31 points) scored 19 points as a sophomore, and Jared DeFeo (23 points). With the addition of Bristol transfer Chris Gamber and sophomore Michael Majchrzak the Knights will be hard to stop.
“We’ve got a good lineup. We just have to put it all together,” said Chase. “This is the fastest game on two feet, and we’ll put on an exciting show for everybody.”
Defensively, the Knights are even better. Steven Hamel is a three year starter that led the Knights last year with 136 ground balls. Michael Lange is a four-year player, and Zachary Jamele rounds out the trio of college bound seniors. Throw Matt Thomson into the mix, and Southington has enough defenders to wear down any offense.
“All four of those guys have been playing varsity since their freshman year,” said the coach. “But we’re still very young at midfield. We lost Tommy Gallagher and Will Thompson, and that hurt us a lot. But we have Alex Jamele, an unbelievable athlete. We have Jared DeFeo, an experience soccer player. Everyone else is a freshman or a sophomore. We’re pretty young.”
If teams find a way to get through Southington’s defense, Brian Mahon returns as the last line of defense. The former attackman shifted to goalie last season and held teams to fewer than seven goals per game. Chase expects even more out of him as a senior.
The Knights will be tested at every step with an even tougher schedule than last spring. Once again, the season will open against Cheshire, but it continues at a torrid pace with perennial powers like Putman Valley (NY), Farmington, Simsbury, Conard, Xavier, Hall, and Glastonbury. Chase makes no apologies for the challenge.
“That’s what I want. I don’t want to play a soft schedule,” he said. “We just played a scrimmage at the New Fairfield tournament. We played Ridgefield, the Class L state champion. We played Wilton, the Class M state champion, and a prep school. Those were three excellent teams, and there’s a reason for that. I want these guys to see excellent teams. I want them to know what it takes to get to that level.”
Will this be the team that finally cracks into the state semifinals? Will the Knights continue to hold their own in one of the toughest conferences in the state? Those are questions for May or June. Chase isn’t looking that far ahead.
“It’s one game at a time,” he said. “Cheshire is all that we’re thinking about right now.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.