By BRIAN JENNINGS
Erin Angelillo never flinched when she saw the soccer ball floating toward midfield. Top-ranked Glastonbury sent shivers down most opponents’ backs, but Angelillo isn’t most opponents. She sprinted toward the ball, launched herself in the air, and the echo from the collision reverberated across the field.
Angelillo was laying on the field, and Southington’s soccer hopes were down for the count.
“It was frightening to see,” said Lady Knight soccer coach Mike Linehan. “Erin was coming out like a missile to head the ball, and their forward was coming out to head the ball as well.”
Angelillo’s concussion was felt more by fans than Southington’s prized soccer star. Doctors forced her out of the lineup for the rest of the fall, and the wind was knocked from Southington’s sails. Gone was their top defensemen. Gone was their captain. It was only the fourth game of the regular season, but it felt like the season was ending.
“I knew at that point that our season was a huge letdown,” said Linehan. “My concern for that was validated when we struggled from there on out. She had such an impact on our team.”
The Lady Knights went on to finish the regular season with a 5-9-2 record, missing the Class LL tournament by just two victories. Linehan said that, with Angelillo in the lineup, it would have been a sure thing. Nobody is arguing his point.
“It certainly made an impact on our ability to make the postseason. Not being a part of our program made every game more challenging,” said the coach. “We are still going through a transition and when you have one of your leaders go down, that impact is significant.”
Throughout her varsity career, Angelillo was always in the center of the action, but Linehan could have predicted that from the moment he saw her play in his premiere soccer team as a middle schooler. The spark that Linehan saw during Angelillo’s journey through the Farmington Soccer Assocation seemed to explode once she reached the high school team.
“She knows how to compete,” said Linehan. “She’s not afraid to take a challenge, and that’s what made her a great player. If there was a 50-50 ball that needed to be won, she doesn’t get nervous to take on the other team’s best forward. She loves that challenge.”
Angelillo could play almost any position. She was a midfielder in the FSA, but she shifted to defense at the high school. By the time she was a junior, she was a clear all-conference performer. Angelillo battled like a prize fighter for every loose ball.
“She could play all three of the positions in the backfield, but Erin completely took that defense and put it on her back,” said her coach. “I knew then that I had already started to build a defense right around her. It was just a matter of where I put her to help the team the most.”
Angelillo’s leadership was what set her apart. Linehan remembers her fighting through a severe case of shin splints from her distance running workouts to lead conditioning practices for the soccer team. Even when she couldn’t run, she was one of the first to arrive for conditioning.
She still wasn’t 100 percent at the start of her senior season, but it would have taken an army to keep Angelillo off the field. Her own coach was kept in the dark, so that she could take the field for opening day.
“She knew how important it was for her to be out on the field, and how confident the team felt when she was out there,” said Linehan. “I can’t tell you how many kids asked if Erin was going to play over the entire course of the summer.”
The shin splints didn’t keep her down. Linehan called her an “assistant coach” with the younger girls, especially the freshmen. By sheer determination, Angelillo took the field for opening day. Then came the disaster in Glastonbury. Linehan relives it like a nightmare, seeing his captain running toward the loose ball.
“I just started to cringe and said, ‘She’s not going to hit that ball with her head, is she?’” he said.
No one will ever know if the Lady Knights would have made the postseason with a concussion-free Angelillo in the starting lineup, but the team might have had a better shot.
When the cold weather arrived, Angelillo was able to begin training again. About a month before the start of the indoor track season, she was finally cleared to run. She wasn’t in prime condition. She wasn’t in perfect shape, but Angelillo wasn’t about to back down.
Quickly, that will to win came back. Soon, she was leading the pack. By the end of the winter season, Angelillo had qualified for the state meet in the 800m, the 1000m, and the 1600m. Her relays qualified in the 4x400m, 4x800m relay, and the distance medley.
“In terms of the IQ of racing, maturity to train, and intensity on the track, she’s always been confident and had a great finish,” said Dachelet. “When I got her, she believed that she was a two-miler. It was pretty obvious that she had a good amount of leg speed. Not putting her in some of the shorter stuff would have been a disservice to her.”
Angelillo transitioned into a mid-distance runner, and her aggressiveness in the 800m pushed her to the top of Southington’s roster. Dachelet said that she had some great finishes. Coaches would test her in races where they knew she would fall behind, but Angelillo would track down the leaders out of sheer willpower.
As a member of the 4x800m relay, Angelillo helped shatter personal records at the CCC championship, Class LL championship, and CT state open. They became the first Southington relay team to qualify for the New England Championships, and Angelillo was at the forefront as the first leg and an all-state selection.
She was also part of a school record in the distance medley relay. Dachelet credits Angelillo’s work ethic for overcoming her early conditioning challenges. By the end of the season, she was back in regular form.
“That allowed us to get to where we were at,” said Dachelet. “It takes four girls to run a 4×800. (To come back without the right base) and still end up with the season she had is remarkable.”
Angelillo carried that momentum into the outdoor season, finishing the spring season with six personal records (PR). Again, she helped break school records in the distance medley relay and 4x800m relay, and she added a school record in the 4x1600m relay.
“To PR your senior year after not having that base is remarkable,” said Dachelet. “She’s just a gutsy racer. She puts her head down and does what she needs to do to get the win.”
As an individual, Angelillo owned school records in the 1000m, 3000m, and 3200m during the indoor season. She also held records in the 3200m and 2000m steeplechase in the outdoor season, and claimed the conference title in the 1600m during the 2015 outdoor season.
It’s rare that a distance runner only competes in the winter and spring. Dachelet said that Angelillo could have been even more dominant had she trained in the fall during the cross country season—not a chance with soccer. Still, he was happy to take whatever he got.
“When she’s here and she’s with us and doing track, she’s 100 percent track,” the coach said. “She’s focused on the team and is passionate about it. I’m just thrilled that we were able to have her as a part of our squad.”
For her outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Erin Angelillo is The 2016 Observer Female Athlete of the Year.