By John Goralski
First year coach Mike Linehan hustled between two groups of girls soccer players during a pre-season possession drill. He barked encouragement over one shoulder as an offensive unit navigated the ball past a crowd of defenders. He turned back to critique the defenders in the other group when they missed an assignment which cost them a steal.
The Lady Knights swarmed in diagonals across the field. One called for the ball. Another sprinted to an open spot. A defender shifted into a gap to block a pass, while a teammate sprints back up the field.
An offensive player in one group drifted back to midfield, and Linehan crashed to a halt. He whirled upon her and called for a stop in the action. “Why did you switch back?” he asked.
A smile curled across the coach’s face as the player explained her decision. It turns out that she saw a defender in a good position to make a run at the net. “See that,” Linehan yelled to both groups. “That’s what I want to see.”
There’s a wave of excitement washing across the practice fields this fall. There’s a growing sense of urgency as the Lady Knights prepare for the upcoming season, and it’s matched by a growing confidence as the girls continue to master a new college-style attack. Practices are grueling. The pace is unwavering, and Linehan in unapologetic for his sophisticated game plan.
If the Lady Knights are going to return to postseason play this fall, they are going to have to learn to compete against the premiere level players that dominate the rosters in Southington’s powerhouse conference.
“Some people have asked if we can train people that don’t have that sort of college experience, and I said, ‘Yes, we can.’ I’m a teacher, and It’s no different than teaching kids calculus,” said the coach. “These girls are capable of learning sophisticated things. Now, we want to take it to the big game. It’s a college-type environment that will challenge some teams. We want to be a little more unpredictable. We want to get other teams back on their heels.”
Linehan has lofty expectations out of the gate, but that’s because the first year coach understands the talent on his team as if he’s been coaching them for years. In fact, he’s known most of his seniors for over a decade and coached most of them as youths in the local travel leagues. He’s followed each one of them through middle school and into their high school careers.
Linehan may have brought most of his experience from other towns and programs. The former University of Hartford player has coached for the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association and has United States Federation National Coaching credentials, but the Southington resident’s heart has always been with his local players and coaches.
Following a 13-year veteran coach isn’t easy. When that coach is the only one in town history to capture a state title (2002), that makes it even harder, but Linehan welcomes the challenge.
“We’re ready,” he said. “I’m so appreciative to [former coach] Sal Penta for everything that he has done because he left this program in a really good position. I also want to reach out to the Southington Soccer Club and the middle school teams. When you look at the number of our kids that haven’t played premier soccer but are ready to step on the varsity field that’s a credit to them. Now, we’re going to build on that.”
So how will they do it? Linehan has already adopted a shifting, morphing style that will allow players to drift seamlessly from offense to defense. The direct attacking style that the team relied upon last season will be tweaked into a more indirect possessive style that soccer fans have come to expect after a summer of watching World Cup games in Brazil.
“There are going to be some kids that are playing primarily in certain spots, but the philosophy that we have is that a player really needs to understand how to play the entire game,” he said. “They should be able to play in whatever position is necessary at any given time. Sure, you may have a primary position, but they should be able to recognize what every one else is doing and be able to adjust.”
That should equate to more scoring, and offense is the name of the game. Last year, the Lady Knights struggled offensively with just 15 goals all season. The team finished with a 5-8-3 record overall, but the Knights posted a 5-1-1 record in games that they scored. Linehan’s first task is to snap the two-year postseason drought, and that will start with the offense.
Linehan has shifted his starting lineup to make that happen with attackmen moved back to the defense to help start the charge. The midfield has been bolstered with players that shift easily from offense to defense, and the attack will be counted on to drop back when players charge into open spaces. Meeting new responsibilities will be the key to Southington’s success.
“It’s no longer good to be okay. You have to be better than okay,” said Linehan. “Every day we will get tested. It’s not like there are just one or two games. It’s every day.”
Senior co-captain Emily Lippincott will be called upon to lead the Knights at midfield and forward. Haley Kolesnik and Jess Goralski will pace the attack, along with Alaina Albino. Co-captain Sarah Palko will anchor the midfield, along with Kristina Linehan, Kaitlin Krar, and Amanda Thompson. A small group of promising freshmen will be shuffled into the lineup, and the Knights will try to set the pace in every game.
“I want teams to fear us more than we fear them,” said the coach. “Last year, we struggled a little to put balls in the back of the net. We want to put teams on their heels by being a more possession, attacking style. Working in the final third and being on attack is always more difficult. Offense is more difficult by nature, but our main objective is to put more balls in the back of the net.”
In the backfield, the Knights will be asked to balance their typical iron curtain defense while remembering to kick start the offense. Emily Maciejewski, Riley Van Epps, and Erin Angelillo will anchor the group. Jess Howe was an attackman last season, but she’ll drop back to defense at the start of the game to help start the transition. With a host of bench players shuffling into the lineup, Southington will have the depth to hold off most teams.
The last line of defense will continue to fall to senior co-captain Margaret Mellitt and Janelle Mangassarian with senior goaltender Miranda Gazaferi in the wings.
The key to Southington’s overall success will depend upon everyone’s ability to adapt in their shifting roles, but Linehan likes his team’s chances.
“Winning and losing is always going to be a factor, but it’s not the only thing,” he said. “Certainly, our expectations are to make the tournament, but I want these girls to think of this year as one of the best years that they’ve ever had. I want them to learn a lot about this game, and I’m going to challenge them. We’re going to be competitive in every game, win or lose. I think that we’re going to be exciting.”
That’s why Linehan’s slogan for his seniors is that this will be ‘A Season to Remember.’ The Southington girls are ready to reclaim their place at the top.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.
By John Goralski