The Southern Connecticut Conference has kept the names of its four division boys soccer setup – Hammonasset, Housatonic, Quinnipiac and Oronoque – but completely realigned them.
It will take some time to figure out which teams are where and all the teams that will be the favorites to make the league playoffs. But you need look no further than past the Shoreline area to find the SCC’s best team the past few years.
Fairfield Prep won league tournament titles in 2012 and 2014 and Shelton took its first crown last year. And Guilford, well the Indians have won a league-best six tournament titles, but none since 2009. Hand doesn’t have that number of championship crowns – the Tigers have just one – but they do have the most success during the regular season each of the past three seasons to go along with a storied history of success.
“The biggest thing I tell the boys is, ‘Every team, no matter who it is, respect who they are and realize they will give you their best shot. To beat you would make a lot of these team’s seasons,’” Hand coach Stan Latkowski said.
Any win against Hand during the regular season would be a feather in a team’s cap, so to speak. The Tigers’ last regular-season loss to an SCC team was at Shelton – on Sept. 27, 2013. That was 41 regular season games ago. Hand has won or tied each one since, most against the SCC.
“Until last year, we never knew. Looking at it now, it’s impressive,” said Hand midfielder and senior tri-captain Jake Brown, who led the team with 17 goals last season. “We will try and keep it going, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and start counting how many we can win.”
The streak is not something that is a team goal or really comes up much in discussion. Latkowski has his own set of goals.
“I would almost say 99.9 percent of the coaches in the state of Connecticut would love to be in my position with what we’ve done,” Latkowski said. “The streak is good publicity for the school and the kids, but my goals every year for them is to get better individually, get better as a team and make sure we are playing our best soccer come November and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve never promised that we will go undefeated during the season.”
The Tigers have combined to finish 49-6-9 over the last four regular seasons. Their only loss on the field the past two years was to Barlow in the 2014 Class L state tournament quarterfinals.
“I’ve been on the (varsity) team since freshman year and losses are rare. When it happens, it’s usually pretty devastating,” senior tri-captain and defender John Gulcicek said. “We never rely on one player. Even when Brian Jackson used to play (a 2013 Register All-Area selection) and that kid scored a million goals, he was scoring goals but there were 10 other kids behind him.”
Said senior tri-captain Drew Montgomery, a center-midfielder: “Everyone on the team will all fight for each other. No matter what position Coach told me to play, I would do it so we could win a title.”
Latkowski credits the booster club’s support and his assistant coaches, Anthony Mancini, Dave Yerby, James Nichols, and now Robert Faulkner, the former head coach for both the boys and girls programs. Faulkner was an assistant at Branford the last few years, including the 2014 Class L co-championship with Avon.
Hand returns eight experienced players, but lost some key personnel, including 2015 Register All-Area performers in the midfield in John Loftus and Alex Cinicolo, in addition to goalkeeper Curtis Henry, who posted 25 shutouts over the past two seasons.
Now in his ninth year at Hand, Latkowski has always had the luxury of strong goalkeeping, dating back to Tucker Hackett, Greg Sydor and Henry. Senior Matt Parker is the likely candidate to take over Henry’s spot and he will benefit from having an experienced defense in front of him.
“We definitely have to be the leaders,” Brown said of the captains. “We have to take blame for everything and figure it out when mistakes are made. I think will have a good season. We have a lot of talent, we just need to put the pieces together.”
Hand has reached the Class L state semifinals three of the last four seasons. The other year was that loss to Barlow in the quarterfinals. But for all its success, getting to the ultimate game has been the ultimate challenge.
Hand’s only SCC championship came in 2010. The Tigers fell to Hamden in penalty kicks in the SCC quarterfinals last year at the Surf Club.
Last year’s Class L semifinal loss to Avon in penalty kicks, a game where Hand dominated basically from start to finish, was the toughest loss to take so far. How it serves as motivation, only time will tell.
“Avon was the worst. We crushed them,” Gulcicek said. “We were destroying them and you know they know. It was one of the best games we played all season.”
Latkowski admits the state tournament losses have been both “frustrating” and “tough to stomach,” none tougher than the Avon defeat in PKs.
“When you have the other coach come up to you, shake your hand and say ‘Stan, I feel sorry for you, you destroyed us and we had no business winning this game,’ that was very gentlemanly of him to say, the ultimate compliment,” Latkowski said. “I think for this program, we knock the door down once, we are going to knock it down a bunch of times. I think the hardest thing is to get there (the first time).”
Hand’s last state title came in 1997, a Class L co-championship with Wethersfield. Faulkner was the head coach, Latkowski one of his assistants. The Tigers’ last appearance in a final was 1999.
Can 2016 be the year when the Tigers finally make it back?
“I just hope they have that mentality that they can handle what will be coming at them,” Latkowski said. “I think we have enough character on team to handle it. We have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of kids who have been with me the last two or three years, so they kind of know what to expect.”