The orange cones were laid out in a circle across the turf field as the Lady Knight soccer team ran in interchanging form around them.
“After you pass the ball, you must go around the cone,” said Southington coach Mike Linehan.
When the team completed their first drill, they quickly broke in to another. Without any hesitation, the first group charged swiftly downfield towards the net like a flock of geese flying in a V. Their communication was in synch with one another, and their form was flawless.
“All five of you have to work together,” the coach said. “Stay tight and rotate. That is an excellent job. Well done girls.”
The Knights finished the 2015 regular season with an overall record of 5-9-2 and went 0-6-2 in the Blue Division of the Central Region in Central Connecticut Conference (CCC), finishing in last place. The Knights haven’t been back to the Class LL tournament since 2013, but have not gone past the first round in quite some time either.
In his first year as head coach of the team, Linehan had talked about putting in a system that would change the culture and environment of the program. After a few years of seeing that system develop, Linehan said that he is hoping he will start to see better results this season.
“They had a tremendous summer and have been working extremely hard,” said Linehan. “Personally, I actually asked less of them than I asked of them in the past because they have that experience now and know what to expect. It’s a joy watching them put it all together now.”
Linehan might be entering his third year as the head coach of the varsity program, but this will be his first season coaching his first class of freshmen as upperclassmen.
“This is the group that I cut my teeth with as freshmen,” the coach said. “I don’t have to coach them as much. They have a very good understanding of how to play this game.”
The Knights lost six players from last year’s team to graduation, all of whom were team captains. Those players included Erin Angelillo, Caitlyn Krar, Kristina Linehan, Emily Maciejewski (all-conference), Natalie Rickard, and Amanda Thompson.
In only the fourth game of last year’s regular season, Angelillo suffered a season-ending injury. Following Angelillo’s injury, more captains followed suit and sustained season-ending injuries of their own throughout the year, leaving Linehan with just one senior on the field by the end of the season.
“I went with a philosophy where I’m going to play the best players on the field longer,” said Linehan. “I do think that injuries were a key to the last few years. I have to stay away from those key injuries to keep players.”
Although he didn’t have a full roster on the field last year, Linehan that he still gained a lot from his second year as head coach.
“I’m now learning more about our competition than I did before,” the coach said. “So I am better prepared for what to expect. The kids were young, but now they’re better prepared and understand what it takes to play at a varsity level.”
One of the major differences in the atmosphere of a Knight practice this season is the simple fact of letting the girls play more scrimmages.
“Last year, I would have been sitting in the middle of them barking at them the whole time,” said Linehan. “As a coach, I’m going to help give them some guidance. The girls love to play. The more I get them playing like that, the more comfortable they’re going to become with each other.”
Another major change to the team was the process of choosing team captains. Usually, Linehan allowed the team to vote months before the start of the season. Instead, Linehan said that he wanted to see who was going to step up and show leadership capabilities without being told during the opening practices.
As a result of the new process, senior defensemen Caroline Kemnitz and Rylee Van Epps were voted by their teammates and coaching staff to lead the Knights this season as the team captains.
“Those two are certainly a great example of what I would call a great leader, not only on the field, but off of it as well,” the coach said. “Last year I had six captains, but this year, we gave it time and made a better decision.”
Other returning seniors include Janelle Mangassarian (goalie), Lia Pizzitola (defenseman), and Kelsey Sargent (defenseman). Returning juniors include Nikki Carter (midfielder), Chelsea Cocozza (defenseman), Abby Connolly (defenseman), Melissa Drexler (midfielder), Ariana Gazaferi (midfielder), Taylor Hubert (midfielder), Alexa Imme (forward), and Michaela Nanfito (midfielder).
Returning sophomores include Kelly Doyle (midfielder), Olivia Sherwood (goalie), Alijah Vega (forward), and Natalie Verderame (forward).
In order to be a successful program this season, Linehan said that the strength of this year’s team is going to depend on every player, not just one.
“I can’t say that one player is all that much better than the rest,” said Linehan. “They have their moments, but the goal for this team is to come together and play consistently from game to game. We’re going to win because we play as a team.”
The Knights aren’t only going to have to come together as a team. They’re going to have to come together as a defense as well. Last year, the Knights gave up a total of 44 goals in 16 games. Coming together defensively is what Linehan said the team has to work on most, in order to be prepared for the first regular season game.
“We’re going to be putting eight behind the ball,” the coach said. “We have to defend as an entire unit, not just our back line.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.