By John Goralski
For years, Erin Luddy boasted that an artificial turf field would level the playing field for her Lady Knight team. For years, she manufactured late rallies in a frenzied game of catch-up, while turf teams cruised into the postseason. Last season, she finally had her chance to prove it.
Glastonbury had to give it all they had to outlast Southington in the opener. Simsbury struggled to put the game away. Farmington needed overtime to beat the Lady Knights. Perennial powers had to fight for wins. Bitter rivals were shut out against a much better Southington team.
It still took a late run to earn a tournament bid, but there was no sense of urgency as Southington knocked off teams late in the season. Luddy looked like a prophet during her first season on turf. Now, she’s looking to raise the bar even higher.
“We’ve already been talking about our objectives, and they’ve changed,” said the coach. “It’s not just about getting into the tournament anymore. It’s about having that homefield advantage. The girls know how hard they’ll have to work to get it, but they seem willing to put in the work.”
It helps that Southington has returned a strong core of veteran players with a heralded group of seniors that have been touted since their sophomore year. Now, Luddy expects them to live up to their promise as the Lady Knights look to close the gap against the top teams in the sport. Moral victories aren’t good enough any more. Luddy expects to compete for wins against those powerhouse programs.
“It’s going to be one week at a time, and that’s how we’re going to approach it,” she said. “Right off the bat, we’re going to be challenged. In the CCC every team is going to be difficult. Every team is going to come in here and want to win. Each team is going to push us to our limit, but that’s what we want.”
Last year, teams had trouble scoring against Southington’s steel curtain defense, and Luddy expects that trend to continue. Nine games last season were decided by one goal or less. All five of Southington’s losses were shutouts as teams struggled to score against the Lady Knight defenders.
Co-captains Meagan Asklar and Megan Palumbo will anchor the backfield. Juniors Victoria Gentile and Kaylee Graef will provide depth in the back row, along with sophomore defender Michaela Carrera.
“Right now, our defense is our strength,” said Luddy. “Meagan and Megan have been playing for three years now, and they really know their positions. The defense has already shown that they can live up to my expectations. They’ve done a good job of keeping us in games.”
Last year, the defense was helped by a strong veteran goalie. This year, Natalie Liquindoli is ready to take over that role. The Lady Knights have a strong tradition of top-rated goaltenders, and Liquindoli will continue that trend.
“She is stronger than you’d think for somebody that hasn’t played varsity,” said Luddy. “We just happened to have a really strong goalie last year, and sometimes you have to wait for your chance. Natalie’s ready to go.”
Luddy said that the biggest difference this year will be Southington’s ability to score. Last year, the offense struggled at times to score against some of the better teams. This year, the Lady Knights are looking to set the pace. Senior co-captain Allie Abacherli was the team’s leading scorer in 2013 (9 goals), and she should lead the charge this fall as Southington tries to score early.
“It’s all about getting that ball in the cage. We have to score,” said Luddy. “Our defense has always proven to be strong, but we have to be able to score as many goals as we give up. That’s always been the key.”
Luddy has high expectations for her front lines. Sophomore Isabella DiBatista will join Abacherli up front. At midfield, the Knights return proven veterans Lauren Zazzaro and Jessica Lee. Seniors Michaela Falk and Caitlin Young will play prominent roles, along with sophomores Sydney Brault and Hallie Altwiess.
“They are all putting in the effort, and they’re all going to have an opportunity. No matter who is in the game, we’ll do everything we can to score,” said Luddy. “So far, I’ve liked our communication. As long as they can keep everyone in the game, I think we’ll have an opportunity to win every one of our games.”
It helps that Southington’s schedule has been leveled from start to finish. Historically, the powerhouse teams have been loaded into the early season, and that has forced Southington to get hot late. This year, the schedule is more balanced.
That means that Southington will have a chance to build early momentum.
“It’s going to need a different psychology. Last year, we went against two top 10 teams in one week, and that can be devastating,” said the coach. “Now, there’s a mix. I’m hoping it gives us more confidence early. Our experience helps. Five of our nine seniors have had varsity experience since their sophomore year. They’ve seen the progression. They know what’s expected of them, and they’re up to the challenge.”
This year, the Knights are focused on home field advantage. This year, they’re expecting to make a run at the postseason.
“We reached our goal of getting into the tournament, and you’re starting to see us have some success against those teams that have been playing on turf for much longer. Now we want home field advantage,” said Luddy. “It’s always an exciting game to watch on turf, and I think people will be astonished to see how athletic are girls really are.”
Look out for the Lady Knights. They’re here to stay.
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