By JOHN GORALSKI
Sal Penta can still remember stopping at midfield during his first preseason soccer practice in 2002 and watching the scene unfold in front of him like a choreographed dance.
Players, drenched in sweat, were shuffling through drills. An assistant coach pointed to a group of defenders sprinting toward loose balls. Another one turned his attention toward a line of offensive players attacking the net only to meet the goalie in an all-out battle in front of the net.
They looked like a hive of angry bees, swarming around the ball as if it posed a danger to the queen. A smile washed across the coach’s face. “Boy,” he said. “This is going to be a good year.”
“You could tell from the talent, the dedication, and the way that those girls wanted to win,” said the former Lady Knight coach. “You knew it right away. You knew that those girls were going to be special.”
Southington High School soccer was at a turning point at the start of the new millennium. After three decades of modest success, the Lady Knights were about to put Southington soccer on the state map. Sure, the school had seen its share of conference champions and individual stars since soccer was introduced at the school in 1973, but the 2002 girls team was about to take it to the next level.
“They were so dedicated. They wanted to get better, and they didn’t want to lose,” said Lady Knight assistant coach Joe Blaszczyk. For three seasons, Blaszczyk had watched the group forged in the lower levels as a freshman and junior varsity coach. “They were a great mix, and they had great chemistry. We had some good speed. We had some good talent, skill-wise, with their technique. The kids kind of understood the game, and they were very, very close.”
The seed had been planted the previous year when the Lady Knights snapped a Bristol Central winning streak that stretched back a couple of years. Here and there, they had shown hints of something special, but even the staunchest fan could not have expected the explosion out of the gates.
Southington launched past New Britain and Bulkeley in the first week, scoring 12 goals in a pair of shutouts. South Windsor, a perennial power, was shut down, 2-1, in the third game of the season, and Southington was just getting started.
Bristol Central, smarting from their loss the previous fall, had to settle for a 1-1 tie in the rematch. The Rams might have been satisfied with the tie, but the Lady Knights took it like a loss. That’s when Penta truly understood the chemistry on his team.
“I think it was a disappointment because of the mentality of those girls. They wanted to win every game,” said Penta. “We had a tremendous amount of respect for Bristol Central, but to not get the win? They didn’t like that. I remember them saying, ‘No more.’”
The offense began dismantled opponents, outscoring teams, 63-5, in the regular season led by tri-captains Lauren Lattanzio, Lauren Dziedzic, and Lauren Forgione. Lattanzio, an all-state and all-New England selection, paced the offense with 25 goals and five assists. Forgione, an all-state attacking midfielder, collected four goals with 11 assists. Dziedzic, anchored the defense at midfield, but still managed to score five goals with four assists.
“We were friends, and we were teammates. I feel like, when we stepped out onto the field, we were all fighting for the same goal,” said Lattanzio. “We really did put forth a group effort from the defense all the way up front to make it work. We had a lot of really selfless people on the team. We had a team out there that wanted to play. We wanted to win, and it didn’t really matter who was putting it in the back of the net.”
Southington had seen 25-goal scorers before, but no previous team had the depth of these Lady Knights. Kamila Zysk scored 10 goals with seven assists. Jill Cocco had five goals. Meghan Butler had four goals with six assists. Eleven different players scored for the Knights, but 14 different players combined for the team’s 56 assists. Over the course of the season, Southington scored assists on all but 11 goals.
“Lauren Lattanzio scored 25 goals each year, but if I actually let her loose each game it could have been 35 or 40. But what people forget about is that Zysk would just give up her body to score goals. It was just a committed team at every part of the field,” said Penta. “Forgione knew where the ball had to go. Zysk knew where she had to be if we were going to score, and Lauren Lattanzio was just unstoppable.”
On the other hand, Southington’s defense was just as untouchable. Shivan Wheeler and Butler were like defensive linemen in the center of the field. Meredith Wholley and Megan Fuller were lightning fast on both ends. Kelly Walsh added depth, so that when teams managed to cross midfield, the Knights were able to counterattack before they knew what hit them.
They were able to play loose, too, with an all-star goalie behind them. Stephanie Kowalec scrambled for 14 shutouts in the season with just one team scoring more than one goal in a game—and that was in the state semifinals.
“Goalies need to be fearless with the ability to negate what’s good for their body and make that save, and Kowalec had that mentality all the time. When you put four players in front of her that were that good, it was tough to score on us,” said Penta. “We had strength in the middle with Wheeler and Butler, and we had speed on the outside with Fuller and Wholley. As soon as we won the ball, we were able to attack right away with our outside backs.”
Teams didn’t know how to defend the Knights. They could pass with the precision of surgeons. They could out-run defenders and confuse them with misdirection. When teams would double-team Lattanzio, Zysk would slip in behind them. When they’d refocus on Zysk, someone else would step up.
“We were a strong group of kids in general—even the underclassmen who were the JV squad and the freshman squad,” said Lattanzio. “We all just wanted to do well by each other. We all worked hard as a group, and that’s why you see the statistics that you see when you look at that year. I think it was a really unique situation, because you don’t always get that from a team sport.”
Southington suffered just one more setback in the regular season, a scoreless tie against Bristol Eastern in the final week that cost them the top seed, but it just seemed to harden them even more for the postseason. After a bye in the first round, No. 2 Southington outlasted Bunnell in penalty kicks, 3-1, before eeking a 1-0 win over Danbury in the following round.
“I think that’s when we finally figured it out,” said Penta. “Usually there’s a stress. You want to go as far as you can, but I think that this team actually enjoyed it. They realized they were in a special spot. They enjoyed it and continued to work hard. The coaches were stressed, but the girls were as calm as could be.”
The team’s first major challenge came in the semifinals during a rematch against South Windsor. The Knights trailed, 1-0, in the opening half but answered with two scores by the break. Once they got the lead, Southington squeezed out the clock like a python crushing its prey. The 3-2 win propelled the Knights into the program’s first Class LL championship game.
“To be down in a tournament game when you know that you’re going to get knocked out? That shows the grit of your players. You have two decisions. You can decide to pack up shop and give in, or you can fight it out and grit it out,” said Lattanzio. “To come back from a deficit in any game—let alone a tournament game when you know that this is it—is a tough thing. It shows the strength and the character of a team.”
After a long weather delay, the Knights faced their biggest test of the season. Fairfield charged into the championship game with an attack that Southington hadn’t seen all year, but the defense dug in to protect the scoreless tie. In the net, Fairfield sported a future division one star. Up front, they could match the Knights step for step. For 90 minutes the teams battled, but neither could break through.
Southington dropped back into a defensive formation after the break, but mounted a counterattack in the final minutes that nearly tipped the scales. When the dust cleared, neither team had broken down. Southington had earned the school’s first soccer state title with a 0-0 tie.
“I tied in the state championship as a high school player, and it was a big disappointment. It’s funny. Here, everyone was happy. The girls recognized that it was a truly heroic effort to protect that scoreless tie,” said Penta. “It was a culmination of a great season, and that was something that we hadn’t seen in Southington. It was a great bus ride home.”
“The emotions and excitement that comes from earning a state title is something that I will always remember,” Dziedzic said. “At the time, I think we all felt like the most important people in the world, but looking back more than a decade now, it is pretty awesome that we earned our team a spot in Southington’s remarkable sports history.”
As the only soccer team to raise a banner at the high school—the only one to even reach a championship game—it was no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have picked the 2002 Lady Knight soccer team to be inducted into the local sports hall of fame.
“We worked really hard, but we also had a blast every day at practice, at every game, and at all of our team activities. We all got along, supported each other, and really enjoyed being part of this team,” said Dziedzic. “Southington High School’s history is full of elite athletes and teams, and it is truly a privilege for our team to have been selected for a spot in this prestigious group.”
“That was a special group. As a coaching staff, we’ve been saying that for 13 years. You don’t get too many girls like that together where you have a talented roster top to bottom, a mentality and maturity to win, and a team that makes the coaches look better,” said Penta. “They did something that no team has ever done. Not only did they show that they were good enough to be state champions, but they acted like they were state championship players—on and off the field.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, the team will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.