By JOHN GORALSKI
With three minutes remaining in the first half of Southington’s first round soccer game, a Blue Knight player snatched a loose ball at midfield to kick-start the offense. Another player controlled the soccer ball for about 15 yards before feeding it ahead once again.
Was it a surprise to see Henry Cence breaking free in a mad dash for the net during that 1986 postseason game? Was it a miscue or a mistake to find a Southington defenseman leading the way on offense?
No. It was almost expected. During Southington’s soccer rise in the mid-1980s, Cence was the secret weapon. The senior co-captain scored during that breakaway to give Southington a two-goal lead, and as it turned out, that was the game-winner.
“It’s almost unheard of, but Henry could score,” said former Blue Knight coach Dan Murawski. “It’s usually so tough for a defensive player to get any recognition at all. Coaches might say that a player had a big game, that he did this, or he did that. But Henry could score.”
Coaches didn’t have to explain Cence’s impact at all. In fact, Cence could do almost anything he set his mind to on a soccer field. He was a scorer. He was a dribbler. Defensively, he was a force. Murawski looks like a genius for dropping his young wing to the back lines after his sophomore season, but it turned out to be just what Southington needed.
“He was just phenomenal,” said Murawski. “He actually started out on offense. I can’t even remember now, why we moved him, but we did. He went to defense, sweeper back, and he was just phenomenal. Nobody could get past him.”
With his offensive skills, Cence was able to beat almost anybody on the dribble. It also allowed him to understand his opponent during one-on-one battles, and that’s where Cence really had the edge. The Class of 1987 valedictorian could out-think almost everyone he faced.
“He was a package deal. He was very intelligent, and that’s one reason why he was so good,” said the coach. “But he was not only a great player. He was a great leader. He was a coach on the field. He had great character, great skill. He was just a wonderful player…and friend, really.”
In Cence’s first season as a defenseman, Southington rebounded from a slow, 0-2 start to capture the first of six straight conference titles. As a senior, Cence captained Southington High School’s first undefeated season (12-0-4). His senior season culminated in a tournament run that ended in a heartbreaking loss to the eventual state champions because of a freak, wind-assisted goal late in regulation.
Cence led the Knights on both ends of the field. He anchored an undefeated defense and was a consistent, top scorer on offense. He captured all-state and all-New England honors as a senior with nine goals and 10 assists. That effort broke a longstanding school record for defensemen, set by Barry DePaolo almost a decade earlier.
To this day, Cence is still the highest scoring defenseman in program history.
“I would always tell my guys that maybe you can get by one guy, possibly two, but never three. But Henry could take the ball, go through the whole other team, and score,” said Murawski. “I’d use him on corner kicks and free kicks. I’d bring him in for headers. Henry could score any which way you could—by skill, feinting out the other players, and I’m sure he had a couple of headers, too. He was just pure skill.”
The soccer star didn’t crave the spotlight, either. For all three spring seasons at the high school, Cence competed on the junior varsity golf team. In his senior year, the varsity Blue Knight golf team captured the state title. Cence wasn’t on the tournament roster, but he went toe-to-toe with them at practice.
“Just to make the team at that time was a good accomplishment,” said former SHS golf coach Ed Malczyk, who was also one of Cence’s teachers. “He was a neat kid. We had such a competitive golf team, so anybody would have had trouble making the team at that time. But he tried, and he was competitive in a lot of different ways.”
Still, it was no surprise that college scouts recruited Cence for his soccer skills, and the valedictorian settled on LeHigh University—not for its soccer program but for its nationally-regarded engineering programs.
As a school, LeHigh didn’t even offer scholarships, but it didn’t take long for Cence to make an impact with his athletic skills. As a freshman, he finished third in points (16) as the team rallied for a .500 conference record.
With Cence, the Engineers became just the sixth team to win more than six games in the program’s 72-year history. The next season, the Engineers rallied to a 13-5-2 record (the most wins of any previous team) and their first ECC tournament title game.
Once again, Cence was leading the offense from the back rows. He was a midfielder during his first three seasons and dropped back to defense as a senior co-captain. In four years, he scored 13 goals and 17 assists (43 points) without playing a single game on offense, but Murawski said that Cence’s defense was just as impressive.
“You just could absolutely not get by him,” said the coach. “He could position himself and watch the field. If he saw that a kid was ready to break out on the left side of the field, he would be able to go over and support it so we could take the ball away from him. If there was a move down the middle, he was there. He was phenomenal about anticipating the other team’s moves.”
With his ability to dominate every aspect of the game, it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Cence as a member of the Class of 2017.
According to his high school coach, Cence’s induction into the hall of fame was never in doubt. Murawski said that Cence was one of the best soccer players in program history, and he said that it’s appropriate that Cence is the first defenseman to be inducted.
“He was the best all-around player that I ever had,” he said. “He was all New England, but he should have been all-American, too. I don’t think he actually got all the recognition that he should have.”
That’s about to change. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, he 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.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.