Going through warm-ups for their second scrimmage of the fall on Tuesday at Saxe Middle School, the New Canaan boys soccer team had a decidedly different look from last year's squad.
Although it returns a wealth of talent eager to continue the school's recent run of success, New Canaan will have to do so without a dozen seniors who were lost to graduation last year. Still, the Rams are ready to get 2012 underway.
"The first thing we want to do is secure our place for both FCIACs and states," senior captain Marcus Hijkoop said. "We've always had a good run with states, and we want to improve on what we've done the past two years by qualifying for FCIACs and seeing how far we can progress."
Preparing for a scrimmage against Brookfield exactly one week from the season-opener on the road against Fairfield Ludlowe, Hijkoop believes that one of the Rams' biggest strengths is being able to play a technically sound style of soccer.
"We have players who play year-round so they're technical and can really play a good brand of soccer. That's something we're really looking to implement this year," Hijkoop said. "As far as things to work on, I would say just getting to know each other and sort of knowing the runs that other players make."
Losing so many seniors may severely weaken the average team's chances of competing the following season, but fourth-year coach Victor Sanchez has grown accustomed to seeing last year's role players turn into this year's stars during his time at the helm.
"Things are very fresh still. We're still trying to figure out the pieces with the new players and find out which player is going to earn that starting spot. We have a good core of returning players who I'm very pleased with," Sanchez said. "I've been very pleased with our possession play considering I have a young group of boys through the middle. I'm comfortable with our guys up top, but our finishing in the offensive third is what I'd like to see us start to do well with."
In addition to those lost to graduation, New Canaan must also make up for departed goaltender Scott Levene, who is playing at a soccer academy for his senior season. Jon-Luke Ferrandino, one of the team's biggest scoring threats in 2011, also graduated.
"Every year we are losing around 10 or 12 seniors, but of those players lost, the two studs were Jon-Luke and Scott Levene," Sanchez said. "Obviously, everyone is competing for that starting position and wherever they're going to fit based on how we're playing."
Still, there's plenty to be optimistic about in 2012.
"We're a really technical team," captain Steve Valente said. "Not size or strength, but we can really possess the ball well and keep it on the ground. The defense is strong."
Several of New Canaan's upperclassmen are well aware of the fact that it's anyone's game once soccer tournament brackets are set, as evidenced by the Rams' run to a Class L state title in 2010 as the No. 19 seed.
"I think making it into FCIACs is one (of the goals) because we've made it the past two years, and then make it as far as we can in states. It's an unpredictable type of playoff," captain Justin Pertierra said. "We probably just need to work on keeping the ball between us instead of just giving it away as quickly."
New Canaan is looking forward to rekindling rivalries with several formidable FCIAC foes, including home games against Darien and Norwalk on Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. and Oct. 24 at 7 p.m., respectively.
Darien ended New Canaan's hopes of defending its state title in 2011 by scoring a 1-0 victory at Darien High School in the second round. And, as the No. 8 seed in the FCIAC tournament the past two years, New Canaan twice bumped top-seeded Norwalk from the playoffs in the first round.
"Definitely Darien because they knocked us out of states and they're our rival, and Norwalk is always fun," Pertierra said.