By BRIAN JENNINGS
The Lady Knight soccer team ended the 2014 season with a 4-11-1 record (2-11-1 in the division) and a seventh-place finish in the CCC West. Although the Knights didn’t qualify for the Class LL tournament, Coach Mike Linehan said that he still learned a lot about the high school environment in his first year coaching the program.
“It’s different coaching in premier [Olympic Development Program]-type platforms,” said Linehan. “I learned a lot about this team and the competition. I had to get to know the players, and they had to get to know me. It was a new system and a year of transitioning. I felt that, from beginning to end, we were a much better team. I wish the season would have started all over again in November because I think we learned a lot about each other.”
Linehan may have served as a volunteer coach at the high school several years ago, but most of his 20-plus years of coaching was as a club premier coach. Adapting to the way that high school athletes think and what they understand about the game was one of the transitions Linehan had to make.
“Where I come from, every player has a high level of technical ability and a high understanding of the game,” said the coach. “In high school, this may not be the primary sport for everyone on the team. You have players that have not had the level of technical training or understanding of the game. So as a coach, I had to understand where their understanding was, and then move from there. Once I had an understanding of what they knew and what they didn’t, I was able to coach them and set a proper level of expectations.”
The message that Linehan said he wants to send—and has been sending to the kids, parents, and community—is that there’s a change in culture taking place.Whether it was conditioning, eating right, or getting the proper amount of sleep at night, Linehan said that he taught his team how to prepare themselves with offseason expectations.
“The first thing to being a great soccer player is being a great athlete,” said Linehan. “Last year, we were not conditioned to be in a position to where we could compete, so I taught them how to be athletes. Starting out of the gate, I believe that we are in a better place this year than we were last year, only because we’ve been doing our strength and conditioning for the last two months.”
Developing the technical and tactical parts of the game refer to an analogy that Linehan has used before in the past.
“Many of them are drinking water from a fire hose,” said Linehan. “They’re taking in so much information so quickly that, for some of them, it’s overwhelming. It’s going to take two, three, maybe four years.”
For Linehan, having a successful program doesn’t start at the high school level. It starts at a younger age.
“I spent a lot of time over the summer working with the middle school kids. I’m teaching them what I’m teaching these kids at the high school. It’s a matter of how quickly we can learn.The teaching process just takes time and there has to be patience in the process. We’re not going to be great today, we’re going to be great tomorrow.”
The Knights lost nine seniors to graduation, including Sarah Palko (forward), Emily Lippincott (forward), Haley Kolesnik (forward), and Jessica Goralski (defender). Palko and Lippincott were the team’s only all-conference players.
“They were a senior group that I had when they were young. I’m going to miss them, not only as seniors and captains, but also just having them around this program,” Linehan said. “They were very good to the program for many years.”
Seniors Erin Angelillo (defender), Jessica Howe (defender), Caitlyn Krar (forward), Kristina Linehan (midfielder), Emily Maciejewski (defender), and Amanda Thompson (forward) have been named the team captains for the 2015 season. People have questioned Linehan on why he chose so many captains, but he just tells them that they all have something special to offer, not only on the field, but off of it as well.
“Jess Howe is in the top ten in the classroom,” said Linehan. “Emily is number two in the class. Erin is the workaholic. She’s the leadership of that team. Kristina’s the smart and crafty one on the field. Caitlyn brings the cheerleading to the group. We’ve implemented the captains early over the summer, and they did absolutely wonderful in taking that leadership role.”
Although offense comes as a weakness to the Knights after losing the majority of their goal scorers, they still have protection and defense as their strength. Angelillo and Maciejewski will be joined by junior Rylee Van Epps and sophomore Chelsea Cocozza in the backfield.
“Chels’ is a great kid,” said Linehan. “She started in the back last year and is the key to our defensive shape. She has a tremendous amount of experience playing this game and is going to lead this team by example. We have built from the back, and they have stabilized us from a defensive position. So far, we’ve had two scrimmages and they’ve done very well.”
Junior Janelle Mangassarian will also provide fortification to the defense as the goal keeper for the Knights.
“I’ve had Janelle in premier and have been with her for a long time,” said Linehan. “She’s the anchor to our team. She had a great year last year, and I expect her to be a key this year.”
The opportunity for development comes in scoring goals. Krar and Thompson will have some help with the attack on the front line from senior Natalie Rickard and freshman Natalie Verderame.
Kristina Linehan will hold down the midfield with the return of key players like sophomores Ariana Gazaferi and Taylor Hubert.
“Ariana will be key to our organization in the midfield,” said Linehan. “She’s got a tremendous amount of experience playing the game. She’s probably one of our smartest players. I’ve known T [Hubert] for many years. She’s got a tremendous amount of premier experience. She was a defender last year and started in all of the games. She’s going to start in the midfield along with Ariana.”
Other players on the team include junior Caroline Kemnitz (defender); sophomores Nikki Carter (midfielder) and Abby Connolly (defender); and freshmen Kelly Doyle (midfielder) and Alijah Vega (midfielder).
“I think that the question is where are we, in what I would call, this transition,” said Linehan. “We’re about half baked. We should be about a .500 team this year, and I’d like to make the tournament. Will we be where we want to be in four to five years? Not in two years. I still have kids that are transitioning into a level of understanding of the game and developing technical ability.”
After the major realignment of the Central Connecticut Conference was announced last October, the girls soccer divisions were reconstructed to the North, Central, and South Regions, with a Blue and White Division within each region. Southington is in the Blue Division of the Central Region, along with Conard, Hall, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.