MADISON — The Hand boys soccer team should be preparing for the chance to win a fifth straight Class L state championship.
That’s what the Tigers do: they play for championships. They also do a good job of keeping things in proper perspective.
It’s hard as a senior to be preparing for a season that may not happen. But that’s what senior soccer players across the state have been facing: the last year of their scholastic career not knowing if the season will definitely happen, nor how long it will last.
Welcome to the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. High school events have not happened since March 9. This fall season begins Thursday. It will look different, feel different and more than likely, not have any traditional type of state tournament format.
The last team to win five straight state titles was Staples from 1969-73 in Class L when there were just three divisions. No team has won five straight under the current four-division format.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” senior co-captain Chris Porte said about the possibility of no Class L state tournament to defend. “Before the (pre)season started (coach Greg Cumpstone) got on a call with me and Scott (Testori, the other co-captain) and said, ‘We just want to win everything, no matter what it is, even if it was preseason games.’ We will go into every game wanting to win, even if it’s not for a championship. We want to win every game we play.”
Whatever that tournament format ends up being will be determined at some point soon — assuming the regular season manages to get through without too many issues with COVID breakouts.
The season starts Friday for the Tigers. They host Guilford, the defending Southern Connecticut Conference champion, at the Surf Club at 6 p.m.
Soccer teams conditioned in cohorts of 10 beginning July 6. Non-skill development began on Aug. 29. Full practices began on Sept. 21.
“I was definitely thinking about it all summer, whether (a season) would actually happen or not,” senior midfielder Jack Wilderman said. “We’ve been pretty much doing the same stuff we have in the past, training with the masks on at proper times. It’s a little different, but the same type of stuff, so that’s good.”
Cumpstone said he had enough coaches on the staff — some of whom are volunteers — to have had one coach per cohort. He also noted that the cohorts by 10 in Madison went in alphabetical order.
So not only were Porte and Wilderman in the same cohort, but also the most dangerous duo of forwards in the SCC: Testori and Jason Wallack. So having most of the starting offense all together helped matters.
Both forwards noted that the team’s spring premier season was canceled. That team returned to practice in late June, according to Testori, and had some scrimmages and some friendlies, but no games.
“Getting out there was definitely amazing. We got to play soccer again,” Testori said. “Everyone was a little rusty, but we got to get back into the swing of things.”
So you can understand when the players for Hand, to a man, want to win every game in front of them. The last one they lost was in the 2019 SCC tournament final to Guilford.
“We want to play the best teams in our division and definitely want to have the best record of everyone,” Wallack said.
Hand will play only the teams in the closest proximity to Madison. The Tigers are scheduled to face Branford three times, Wilbur Cross and Career/Hillhouse twice apiece and Xavier and East Haven once.
Guilford is on the schedule three times. The two foes squared off four times a season ago.
“I don’t like playing the same team more than once to be honest with you,” Porte said. “Teams start to figure each other out, and you can become more strategic, especially Guilford.”
There is another side benefit to having this season play out: college recruiting. Since there was no spring premier season, there was little chance for players to be seen.
So now, high school soccer actually becomes important for colleges to see kids play, in person or virtually.
“Schools want to see high school soccer. They want to see us if they can if there is still some uncertainty (about offering a scholarship),” Wallack said.
Said Cumpstone: “It means a lot from a recruiting perspective. Over the last, I’d say 15 years, the high school game has taken a back seat to the club game. Now, this will be the only way teams can see the kids, so it will be really important.”
Just as important is the chance for these seniors to play with one another for its high school team one final season as expected — especially in a year where no one really knew what to expect.
“In my most optimistic mind, I hope the (COVID) numbers look so good in November that we could have a state tournament or some sort of regionalized state tournament,” Cumpstone said. “I just hope there is something legitimate for these guys to play for at the end of the year, not just a bunch of friendlies.”
Said Testori: “If we win whatever they call the state tournament this year, we will be happy. That’s a five-peat in our minds. But right now, we are not too focused on that. We are focused on getting better as a team and to win every game.”