By JOHN GORALSKI
School officials must have been shocked by the crowds at the Kennedy boys soccer game in the fall of ‘82. Even the athletes paused their pre-game rituals as the St. Thomas boys wandered onto their field.
Everybody—the fans, the players, and the coaches—scanned the sidelines for the Kennedy girl that dared to take on her school. Lisa Matukaitis (now Lisa Koulouris) didn’t seem to notice the attention, the crowds, or the banter. For her, it was just a soccer game.
“I remember asking to see if I could play for Kennedy, and I remember my P.E. teacher telling me no,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember why he said no.”
Matukaitis never set out to be a pioneer. She wasn’t trying to prove a girl could compete with the boys. She just wanted to play soccer, and Kennedy had no girls team. Tiger coach Ans Swanson was only too happy to open up a spot on her school’s roster. Matukaitis was just that good.
“I guess I just wanted to play,” she said with a laugh. “To be honest, it probably helped because playing with the boys really made me get better. The boys were tougher, so you had to be tougher.”
Few remember the final score of that cross-town rivalry in the ‘80s, but everyone remembers the answer to the only question that matters. Yes. Matukaitis scored for the Tigers. There was rarely a game when she didn’t.
“Lisa made just that much of a difference in the game,” said former Lady Knight soccer coach Winston Thompson. “She was playing with the 16-year olds when I was coaching the 14-year olds. She was that good.”
Matukaitis came from a different era, a time before girls youth leagues and travel teams. She tried dance…didn’t like it. She played baseball…didn’t capture her interest. But when Southington Parks and Recreation announced a co-ed youth soccer league on Sundays behind Central Elementary School (Derynoski), Matukaitis strapped on her cleats to give it a try.
There were only three girls on the team, but that didn’t stop her. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I knew she was going to be an impact player right away,” said Thompson. “I can remember when she was only nine or 10 years old. I used to watch her father behind Central. He used to have her just shooting balls on goal…continuously. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she can really kick the ball.’ Even at that age.”
It didn’t take long before Matukaitis became one of the top scorers in the town league. As a shooter, she could paint the corners of the net with a surgeon’s precision. Official stats weren’t recorded, but every opposing coach had a plan to stop the small whirlwind. Every plan failed.
“She was not the fastest girl in the world, but she was quick. She could turn on a dime. You could be running down the field with her, and all of a sudden you’d be going and she’d be long gone the other way,” said Thompson. “In the goal area, she could release the ball as quick as any boy that I’ve ever seen. That was her gift.”
That’s why Thompson didn’t make the same mistake as the junior high school coaches. When the freshman petitioned to try out for the high school team, Thompson threw open the doors. Southington was a three-year program, but Lisa earned four varsity letters.
As a freshman, she led the team in scoring (26), and she set the pace every year that followed. She was all-conference three times, all-state twice, and all-New England as a senior. When opponents hit her with triple-teams as a senior, Matukaitis still managed 19 goals…with 11 assists. She was the focus of every opposing coach.
“I remember once she put on a different uniform,” said Thompson. “The other coach complained. ‘How can our girls find her?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry. As soon as she moves, you’ll find her.’”
Matukaitis was hard to miss. She graduated with 105 goals and more than 30 assists. Thompson said that the numbers don’t even tell the whole story.
“There were a lot of games that we didn’t even have her start,” said the coach. “She’d sit on the sidelines until we needed goals, and we’d put her in. Then she’d come out.”
Soccer and winning was all that mattered. Her mother had to force her into going to the junior prom. She nearly missed her senior prom because of a soccer tournament earlier that day.
“I was very dedicated to soccer,” she said. “My life was soccer.”
So nobody would have been surprised if Matukaitis sat out the winter season, but when the soccer season finished the soccer scorer moved indoors. Her tenacity and determination seemed to fit perfectly into Southington basketball’s defensive scheme.
Once again, she worked her way onto the roster as a freshman and contributed every season as the Lady Knights rallied for three state titles and one second place finish. Matukaitis anchored the defense.
“She would just watch, watch, watch,” said Thompson. “All of a sudden—bang—she’d be gone, and she’d have a layup on the other end.”
Despite her smaller size, she was a leader. She graduated with school career records in assists (263) and steals (264). In one game against Newington in 1988, Matukaitis managed 14 steals.
“I loved defense, but we used to always joke about it,” she said. “I would steal the ball, but I was a terrible shooter. I could have probably averaged about 20 points per game, but I only scored about eight… because I always missed the layup.”
Still, when division one soccer programs began to show interest, Matukaitis shrugged them off to play at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU). UConn showed interest. The University of Hartford wanted her to play, but Matukaitis wasn’t ready to give up basketball.
“They were all division one programs, so to go there you could only play one sport,” she said. “I was thinking that I wanted to do two sports and enjoy myself.”
Once again, she made an immediate impact. She is still ranked first (9) and second (8) for single game points. She holds school records for career goals (72), career points (166), career shots (291), games with goals (24), and even tied herself as the school’s leader in single game scoring (4).
“She was the program,” said former ECSU soccer coach Beth Regan. “She was the program’s first high level, high quality soccer player. I don’t say that as a criticism of any other athletes, but she was clearly the scorer, the offensive player, and the attacker that our program needed.”
As a freshman and sophomore, “Matty” led the school to their first double-digit win seasons and the first two NCAA tournament appearances. The team struggled her junior year when Matukaitis blew out her knee, but she returned as a senior to lead them back to the postseason.
“She didn’t care who scored or how many goals she had,” said Regan. “She only cared if we scored. Most of the time, it was with her help. She was a blue collar, blue chipper.”
It didn’t stop when the season ended. For four years, Matukaitis anchored the ECSU basketball team—with a one-year gap when she was red-shirted with torn ligaments in her right knee. She was Little East Rookie of the Year as a freshman and set a school record for steals in her first season.
Matukaitis is still ranked second in career steals (276) and in the top 10 for steals per game (2.5), assists (375), and assists per game (3.4).
“I think it shows that she is more than just a premier athlete in one sport,” said Regan. “I think that, if you teach her golf, she’d excel at golf. You could probably put her on the softball field, and she would have excelled at certain things…or lacrosse, or something else. But I think she was born to play soccer. She had that nose for the goal and the mentality. She could beat you with her speed, with her touch, with her change of direction, with both feet. She was just a defender’s nightmare.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Matukaitis as a member of the Class of 2016.
“It’s a no-brainer. What took so long? I say that with all due respect,” said Regan. “I know that Southington athletics is high quality, and I know that there are athletes that made big impacts on college programs. But in terms of putting a program on the map? I don’t know how many other athletes coming out of Southington had the impact that she did on their program’s development.”
That, hints Regan, goes for boys and girls.
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Matukaitis 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) 620-9460, ext. 104.
“It’s a big honor. I love this town,” said Matukaitis, thanking her parents, her family, and her hometown. “This is where I grew up. This is where I started to play soccer. I met a lot of talented people. If it wasn’t for this town, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Probably in another town’s hall of fame. Lucky for us.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@ SouthingtonObserver.com.