BRIDGEPORT — When the Bassick boys soccer team got together for its first practice this fall, few around the state would have anticipated a run to the Class L quarterfinals in the Lions’ future — the players themselves as well.
“I remember the first practice we had, we were just terrible. The next thing you know, we started practicing and we worked harder and harder,” senior defender Daniel Maldonado said Saturday night moments after Bassick lost to Avon in penalty kicks at Lewis Memorial Field. “Literally everything changed.”
Although it ultimately fell short of a trip to the semifinals, the 2018 season represents the best showing in Bassick school history. The Lions earned the Class L No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. Bassick then defeated Woodstock 2-1 in the second round before falling to Avon 4-2 in penalties after the teams played to a 1-1 draw in subzero conditions.
More important than the Lions’ win total is how they quickly became a “family.”
“We had 11 guys to go to war with it every game. We didn’t have any subs,” coach Saleh Hanaif said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. They represented the community really well.”
Bassick’s intensity and commitment was fully on display against Avon, a nine-time state champion.
Cleeford CeneJuste ruptured a blood vessel in his eye when a ball bounced off his face minutes early on, but he asked to return after being cleared by the trainer. Maldonado left briefly in the second half to get his leg patched up and then made a vital block late in regulation to help force overtime. Before overtime began senior Andrew Westphal used a spare ball as an impromptu roller to help ease cramps in both legs.
“We went as far as we can,” Maldonado said. “We did this for the city. We did this for Bassick. We did this for the Lions.”
Bassick’s program continues to trend in the positive direction under the direction of Hanaif. He took the job with only four days notice when the previous coach resigned on the eve of the 2008 season.
“(Bassick) averaged one win (per year) for 45 years,” said Hanaif, who played at Long Island University. “I had to change the whole culture.”
Hanaif’s first season finished 1-12-2. The next year the Lions were 5-7-3, holding their own in the FCIAC before eventually departing for the CTC. All told Bassick has qualified for the state tournament seven times under Hanaif. Bassick, which now plays as an independent, defeated Foran in 2015 for its first tournament victory. This season, Bassick finished a stellar 13-3-2.
Still, it remains an uphill climb.
The Lions face a variety of adversity on daily basis ranging from the mundane — the water foundations not working at Went Field — to the more-serious, such as players missing practices because they have to work or the team scrapping together enough money for respectable uniforms.
Bassick also loses potential players to other schools in Bridgeport, which is partly the reason the program doesn’t include junior varsity or freshman teams.
“We always make the best of it. It’s a lot of work. We don’t a booster club, that’s for sure,” Hanaif said. “This is what we have. They’re tough. They believe in one another.”
Hanaif said the core of the 2018 team began coming together last season. He built around seniors Fritz Delphonse, Cristian Barrales, Gustavo Poblano, Micolm Cardona-Vargas, Christopher Mendez, Tyrese Dennis, along with CeneJuste, Maldonado and Westphal. Junior standouts Kevin Ramos Flores and Alam Marquez-Marin along with sophomore Kevin Sampayo Mones give Bassick hope for the future.
For now, the Lions will continue to stick together and grow regardless of the odds.
“We just do it,” Hanaif said. “We just go out and play. Give us some soccer balls and we’ll compete. That tells you something about the kids. You can’t teach that. … The whole state should be proud of them.”