New Canaan prepares to defend state championship
Winning a state championship is never easy. Defending one might be even harder.
Just ask the members of the New Canaan boys' soccer team, who enter the season knowing full-well that they'll be a marked team as they prepare to defend their Class L state title.
"I don't consider it pressure [to defend the title]. I consider it another goal in some sorts," New Canaan senior captain and goalie Scott Levene said. "There will be teams gunning for us, but I think we can cope. We didn't lose that many starters. We have a strong defensive line and a strong midfield."
The Rams lost nine seniors from last year's championship team, though only two (Rory Shepard and Scott O'Brien) were starters. Shepard was, by all accounts, one of the best players in the FCIAC.
"Both were my captains. Rory was an amazing player and he's off at Georgetown now," New Canaan coach Victor Sanchez said. "We did have nine seniors, but they were the only two that started, so those are the two that we'll obviously be looking to replace."
Sanchez said that he'll be counting on several players to help pick up some of the slack left by Shepard.
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"I do know who are some of the players to look for this year and that's John-Luke [Ferrandino] hands down will be one of my top field players, Scott Levene in goal, Tim Pritchard who's my other captain in the middle of the field, Steven Valente will be a junior and Marcus [Hijkoop]," Sanchez said. "Those are the guys who I foresee shining this year, and I do have high expectations for those guys."
After a remarkable run through the 2010 state tournament, the No. 19-seeded Rams were the last team standing. New Canaan's journey included wins over No. 14 Branford (3-0), No. 3 Avon (2-1, 3-2 in penalty kicks), No. 11 Fermi (3-1), No. 2 Watertown (3-2, 9-8 in penalty kicks) and No. 1 Bunnell (2-0).
"We were a low seed because our division is harder than everyone else," Levene said. "A lot of people doubted us, but we knew we could do it. I feel that we still have a very strong core."
"It was cool to get there and beat Bunnell, who was favored and we were the 19 seed," said Pritchard, one of New Canaan's captains. "We have some good underclassmen playing who were practicing with us but not playing last year, so they're going to get a new shot to get on the team."
Despite the run, Sanchez doesn't sound concerned with the possibility that his players would get complacent after winning the state tournament.
"As of now, they've been responding well [to the pressure of being the defending state champions]. They're taking the initiative to play every day, to condition on their own and with myself," Sanchez said. "So I can see the spirit is there and the motivation is there. They've got the right mindset right now, which is important."
Although they won the state championship, the Rams fell short in the FCIAC tournament, losing a 3-0 decision against Fairfield Warde in the semi-finals. Because of the early exit from the FCIAC playoffs, the Rams also sound as if they're gunning for an FCIAC crown to add to their trophy case.
"I'm sure there's going to be teams going after us, but we didn't end up winning FCIAC's [last year], and I think our ultimate goal is to end up winning that," said Ferrandino, one of New Canaan's captains.
New Canaan kicks off its season Wednesday in the form of an away game against Danbury at 4 p.m.