As boys soccer teams return to the field around the state this weekend, they do so in a completely different way.
Preseason training in the age of COVID-19 looks much different and the process for upcoming tryouts while limiting contact and maintaining distance rules are forcing coaches to be creative in how they select their teams.
Some coaches will have to choose a roster of players they have never seen in games or scrimmages.
“I am trying to look at the positives because this is a situation none of us have been in,” said Weston coach Kevin Fitzsimmons. “Now, we can look at kids in groups of 10 rather than 50 and give each player a proper look. It’s not the worst way to do it, to be honest. But, four weeks of training and starting on October 1 feels too long. I thought we could start earlier but I know it is a tough situation for the CIAC.”
Right now, teams can practice for one hour with half of that time being dedicated to fitness training and half to ball skills. Teams may not scrimmage even in small groups.
Time with players has become precious and coaches are trying to squeeze all they can out of it.
“Time management is the biggest thing,” said Glastonbury coach Mark Landers. “We have 60 minutes to practice. We do not want to waste a second of that 60 minutes. Therefore, we can’t really do new things or things that take too much explanation. We have to do stuff we have done in the past and at least some of the kids are familiar with.”
Landers said the format will require a new approach.
“This year is totally different. It is about patience and flexibility and redefining what success is,” Landers said. “Now, we know these kids never know when their last game will be. If there is a spike in cases, it could all end tomorrow Our seniors need to foster the culture of our program in a different way.
“We usually carry a large roster so when guys graduate, we have guys to step up and fill roles. We have guys returning who played a lot and others who were on the varsity bench, watching how last year’s team went about their business. Our returning players have been spread equally among the cohorts to bring their experience to each group. We are asking a lot of them in terms of being leaders.”
Weston, which like Glastonbury has a strong youth feeder program, has many players coming out for varsity who are familiar to the coaching staff.
“We feel like we were going to be good this year with seven seniors and strong group of juniors. We felt we could compete for the SWC and a state championship. I feel bad for these kids who have worked so hard,” Fitzsimmons said. “I run the youth program in town and know most of the players we have coming out for the team. We have built a strong program in town and this year, that makes evaluations easier.”
Glastonbury and Weston have the benefit of being towns where the youth program feeds into the high school and many of the players coming out for the team are already known to the coaches.
That is not the case everywhere.
Stamford has new players show up to tryouts every year, many who end up not only making the varsity. But in some cases, they wind up as all-state players such as Kenly Lalanne who walked onto the practice field for tryouts two years ago after moving from Haiti.
“This year we have even more kids we don’t know because we have kids coming who played at academies, kids coming from Trinity (Catholic) and kids from overseas,” said first-year Stamford coach Mike Summa. “We get kids every year who come from other countries and are varsity ready. It is going to be hard to evaluate kids without seeing them play. Kids can be great at the skills but lost on the field and vice versa.”
Summa said he expects 90 to 100 players to come out for the Black Knights this fall.
After a recent spike in cases in Danbury, all sports were shut down in the city.
The boys soccer team had been off for a week after the first round of allowed training, when news came down of the ban.
That will leave Danbury weeks behind other schools in terms of evaluating and training players.
“I have to hope our kids are out there staying in shape,” said Danbury coach Antony Howard. “It is frustrating as a coach and I feel terrible for the kids. This year there is no real FCIAC tournament and no state tournament. The results are pretty much irrelevant. The kids just want to play and the coaches just want to coach.”
Danbury, one of the largest schools in the state, sees between 120 and 140 players come out for boys soccer each year, according to Howard.
This year, making cuts to that large group will be difficult.
“We get 120 to 140 kids trying out every year which we will have to break down into 10-14 groups depending on how many we are allowed to have on the field,” Howard said. “I have to justify every cut we make and that is going to be difficult if we can only practice for an hour and half of that is fitness and the other half is ball work with no scrimmaging in there. All we can see is fitness levels so we are going to have to be creative in how we pick the team. We will certainly keep more kids around this year because the cuts will be difficult to make.”
Unlike some schools where many of the players trying out are already known to the coaches, new students arrive as transfers in Danbury every year and make the varsity.
The Hatters lost much of their starting lineup from last season, leaving few returning varsity players to fill slots.
With regulations and protocols in place, Howard feels the best place for the players is on the field.
“When the kids are playing they are showing up at the field, getting their temperature checked and answering the COVID questions every day,” Howard said. “If these kids are not at school and not playing sports, what do you think they are going to do, go home and sit alone?
“No, they are going to get together at parks to play or in the streets to hang out. You are not going to stop that and it will be worse if it is not controlled. At least at school and practice, it is being monitored and controlled.”
Other teams will not be on the field, even for modified training, until they are cleared by their towns or cities, leaving them weeks behind the competition.
The CIAC has issued guidelines for returning to play for each fall sport, which were updated Wednesday.
For soccer, practices in cohorts of 10 begins Saturday — expanding to full teams and full contact Sept. 21, providing there are no further spikes in COVID-19 cases in Connecticut.
Games are scheduled to begin Oct. 1, with a 12-game regular season schedule that must be completed by Nov. 7. If there is to be a postseason tournament — still to be determined — it would run from Nov. 7 to Nov. 21.