EAST HAMPTON — There were several championship contenders throughout this short but still highly competitive Shoreline Conference boys soccer season.
Perennial power Old Saybrook was as deep and talented as last year’s Class S title team. Morgan was riding a six-game winning streak when its season was canceled because of COVID-19. Valley Regional had seven wins before suffering the same fate. East Hampton was senior-dominant and driven to win its first Shoreline crown.
There weren’t many who paid Haddam-Killingworth much mind.
But when H-K hoisted the Shoreline trophy on Monday, the Cougars looked every bit the conference champion — even though they were an unlikely champion.
After winning just 2 of 16 matches in 2019, the Cougars outdid themselves this fall under the leadership of first-year coach Mike Mead, defeating East Hampton 1-0 on a goal by freshman Cole Merriam in the 59th minute.
Keeper Cal Braren had three big saves over the final three minutes to keep the No. 4 seed Bellringers, who upset Old Saybrook in overtime in the semifinals, off the board.
“You’re never expecting something like this your first year,” said Mead, who was a first-year assistant in the program last fall. “It’s amazing and still feels surreal. When you’re coming off a 2-14 season, it takes heart, it takes commitment. They believed in me and I believed in them. They trusted what we were doing here. It slowly came together, we made a few changes to start the season, and here we are now.”
No. 6 seed H-K lost to 2019 Shoreline co-champion Old Saybrook, Valley and East Hampton in the regular season but went 5-0-2 against the rest of its schedule. Asked if the team had flown under the radar this fall, Mead said “100 percent.”
“I’m not going to lie, and no offense to anybody else, but until this point I don’t think anyone is looking at us the way we should be looked at,” he said. “We had a couple of tough losses (which included a 6-4 defeat to East Hampton in October), but again, we made changes and now everyone’s looking at us.”
Mead’s major adjustment? He moved career forwards/midfielders Tim Carter, Niko Yepes and John Kowal to the back line to make up for loss of veterans to graduation. It changed the team’s fortunes. The Cougars’ year-over-year goal differential improved from 13 scored and 32 allowed, to 30 and 11.
“They’re all seniors and they bought in and stepped up,” Mead said. “We knew to be stronger, we had to move them to the back. This solidified one part of our team, and we were still able to build an attack that was quite dangerous all year.”
It opened the door for others, like newcomer Merriam and junior Ben Williams, to help the cause up front.
“Without those guys playing in the back, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities this season that I did,” Merriam said.
The pace of Friday’s match was slowed by East Hampton’s soaked and spongy natural grass. In the first half, neither side had memorable opportunities, although the Cougars put eight shots on Bellringers keeper Drew DiStefano.
Merriam’s scoring chance, which developed out of a free kick, surprised even him. Williams had a foot on it first and East Hampton failed to clear the ball. Merriam sent it toward the near post, just out of the reach out DiStefano.
East Hampton senior Jack Piper said it was an “unlucky outcome” for his team.
“I thought we played well up until the last 10 or 15 minutes and then we kind of fell apart,” he said. “We broke down a couple of times before then, but were able to clean it up before they got a clean shot off. I don’t think our defense has had many breakdowns this season. Max Karrenberg, Adam Collisson and Paul Pignatella were the strongest back line I’ve ever seen or played with my entire life.
“If we keep our heads up, I think the team will do just as well next year.”
Piper and senior Justin Landon led a charge that put pressure on H-K’s defense in the final six minutes. But Braren, who finished with seven saves, thwarted three of the Bellringers’ best attempts, including a header directly off a corner kick that he punched away.
“Cal has been unbelievable,” Mead said. “That kid is an All-State lacrosse player and he’s played goalie only two or three years now. I’ve worked with him privately the last two years. The kid is an athlete no matter how you put it. If he wasn’t such a good lacrosse player, I’d be pushing him to play soccer in college.”
The Cougars have won conference titles this fall in girls soccer, volleyball and boys cross country as well. The H-K boys last won the Shoreline title outright in the late 2000s, when Mead was a player in the program, with back-to-back championships.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to come out on top,” senior Colby Whitehead said. “I think all the teams walked into us thinking we’d be a pushover and we showed them all that we’re not.”