When he first took over the Lady Knight soccer team in 2015, Southington coach Mike Linehan talked about changing the culture of the program. Now, Linehan is reaping the benefits of his labor, especially after the team finished last year’s regular season with a winning record for the first time in five years.
The Knights ended a two-year drought by qualifying for the Class LL tournament for the first time since 2013, but were shut out, 4-0, at home in the first round as the 16th seed by No. 17 Shelton. However, Linehan still got his first taste of the postseason.
If there’s anything that Linehan learned, it’s that you have to be better than 10-5-1. But if you’re going to be 10-5-1, it better be against more of the better teams.
“We’re getting better, but our league record is one of our top priorities this year,” the coach said. “We made the tournament, but we’ve got to do better in our league play this year. Our league play will better position us to compete in the tournament.”
Other than finishing the regular season with a winning record and making the state tournament, Linehan also reaped the benefits of the newfound interest in the program. This year’s tryouts saw over 30 freshmen, which was the largest group of freshmen the program has seen in years.
“When you see young kids come in that want to play soccer at the high school, it’s reassuring that we have a message that’s being delivered and heard, and it’s a program that they want to be a part of,” said Linehan. “When we had over 70 kids try out for the girls soccer team dressed in their blues, it was quite impressive.”
The Knights finished last season at 10-5-1 overall (5-2-1 home, 5-3 away), placing last in the CCC Central Blue Division with a 1-3-1 record. The Knights also lost five seniors to graduation after last season, including two defensemen and the team’s starting goalie.
In order to make the state tournament for a second-straight year, Linehan said that the team is going to rely deeply on chemistry. Players meshed well with one another as the teams strength last year, and it helps that the core group of starters is returning.
“We knew how to play together,” the coach said. “It’s not broken, and it wasn’t last year. We found that level of chemistry, and now we need to pick that back up play as we did last year.”
The Knights are returning 10 seniors, and all were freshmen when Linehan began his high school tenure. This is Linehan’s team. It might not be the most technical or physically large team he’s had, but they have one of the best work ethics he’s been around.
They also have a clear understanding of the game and what it takes to be successful at the high school.
“When we go to practice, they’re not the last group coming in,” said Linehan. “They’re still the same group that is the first ones there. That’s the telling story of the change in this program.”
The team’s clear understanding of the game has also allowed Linehan to implement different systems into the offense and defense.
“I need to give them the confidence to be creative,” the coach said. “Last year, I think we did become somewhat predictable.”
“I’ll be able to make those types of adjustments,” he said, “and they’ll be comfortable with those adjustments because of their level of experience.”
Team captains for the upcoming season include seniors, Abigail Connolly (defenseman), Ariana Gazaferi (forward), and Taylor Hubert (forward/ midfielder). Other key returners include seniors Nicole Carter (defenseman) and Alexa Imme (forward/ midfielder/defenseman) and juniors Olivia Sherwood (goalie), Alijah Vega (defenseman), and Natalie Verderame (forward).
Connolly, Vega, and Verderame are the only all-conference players returning. Verderame led the team and Southington’s division with 15 goals last season. Sherwood is replacing Mangassarian as the team’s starting goalie.
After a new realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Colonial Division of the West Region and is scheduled to play Conard, Hall, and Northwest Catholic twice. The West Patriot Division features Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.
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