The Pomperaug boys soccer team experienced a run of success over the last three seasons.
In 2018, the team reached the CIAC Class LL semifinals, losing to eventual champion Glastonbury.
Last season, the team won the SWC championship on a dramatic goal with 27 seconds remaining followed by a run to the Class L quarterfinals where they fell to eventual champions Hand.
After losing 13 seniors, including the twin scoring threats of Andrew Doan and Jack O’Brien, this year’s Pomperaug team looks much different with just three seniors among the starting 11.
Fortunately for Pomperaug, one of those returning seniors is All-New England, All-State and three-time All-SWC first team selection Jaden Finkel-Hozer.
Prior to this season, Finkel-Hozer was put on the High School All-American watch list for 2020 as well as being listed on the GameTimeCT 25 CIAC Boys Soccer Players to Watch.
Finkel-Hozer, who has started for the team since his freshman season, is facing a season like no other in his past years on the varsity.
The center midfielder finds himself with more varsity experience than the rest of the team combined, in a season where only one preseason scrimmage was allowed and the SWC is split into regions.
“This year is a big difference. It is nothing like the previous years I have had here. It’s taking a little more effort, especially on the field getting the chemistry and communication,” Finkel-Hozer said. “Last year with the class we had made a bunch of state cup runs. This season is really weird. It’s not the same, but I am trying to make the most of it because it’s my senior year. I just want to leave everything on the field.”
Entering Thursday night’s game against Abbott Tech, the Panthers had not won a game, sitting at 0-2-3 with the shortened season a third of the way finished.
Compare that to last season when Pomperaug started 9-1-1 en route to its SWC championship.
Still, the team has time to come together and make a run at another SWC title.
This year, the league is split into two regions, the SWC-North and SWC-South.
Pomperaug finds itself in the North Region along with Abbott Tech, Newtown, New Milford, Brookfield, New Fairfield, Bethel and Immaculate.
Every team will make the postseason and is guaranteed at least three games.
The winners of each region will play for the SWC championship, giving a rebuilding Pomperaug team as much hope as anyone when that tournament begins in early November.
“When I heard that news, I was very excited. At least it gives some kids more motivation. It’s always better to get to play for something,” Finkel-Hozer said. “We get to defend that title. The SWC has a lot of good teams and good players. It’s always a challenge playing in this league.”
Finkel-Hozer has embraced the role, not just of team captain, but de facto coach on the field with so much inexperience around him.
“He pushes himself but he also pushes the other guys. He’s vocal on the field and he’s our captain and he demands a lot of everybody on the field. He gives it to. He demands a lot of himself,” Pomperaug coach Joe Mancini said. “When they see him making slide tackles or doing sprints and he’s in the lead, it motivates everyone else. He doesn’t shy away from that stuff. He tells people where they should be, where they should help out. He keeps everyone organized on the field.”
Though he began his high school career playing outside back, Finkel-Hozer has transitioned into one of the state’s best central midfielders.
He is equally adept on the defensive and offensive sides, moving easily back and forth.
While he can score (he has one goal this season) he is more of an offensive facilitator, distributing the ball out to the wings and up to the strikers.
“He’s come a long way. His vision, his awareness and understanding of the game have all improved,” Mancini said. “When he was a freshman, we had him at outside back and as we have progressed we moved him into the midfield. He’s good at seeing the field and getting other guys involved. He’s a good ball handler. He has gotten more offensive minded. We give him that free roll to roam and try and create stuff for us.”
Finkel-Hozer credits the players from previous years in helping him develop into the player he is today.
“As I got older and more experienced in the SWC and playing in high school I got more confidence. I had a lot of help from the upperclassmen as I was coming up. Those guys really helped me,” Finkel-Hozer said. “I like how you can control the game and control the tempo from the midfield. I like being that guy on the field that is always available whether it be on defense or offense.”
After playing in Southbury’s Little Kickers and Big Kickers youth leagues growing up, Finkel-Hozer has played with the travel program CT Elite Rush for the past six seasons during the high school offseasons.
He gives as much credit to that program as he does to the Pomperaug players that came before him.
CT Elite Rush allows Finkel-Hozer to play with some of the other best players in the state including Scott Testori of Hand, Aldo Barragan of West Haven and Aiden Buchanan of Guilford.
“It has helped me so much,” he said. “The amount of touches I get on the ball compared to kids who just play high school makes an extreme difference. There are some really good players we play with and against playing for CT Rush.”