MIDDLETOWN — When Sal Emanuele was rehired to coach boys soccer at Middletown High this year, his initial ask of his players was simple: Put the team first, be disciplined, be accountable.
The Blue Dragons bought in to the coach’s demands, and it comes as little surprise that they are off to a three-game unbeaten streak.
Senior Javier Prince scored his first varsity goal in the 70th minute off an assist from Gael Badibanga to life Middletown to a 2-1 CCC inter win over Bulkeley at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.
The Blue Dragons’ 2-0-1 start to the season matches the win total of last year’s team (2-11-3). On Monday, he fielded a starting lineup of two seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and a freshman. They played well in spurts and dominated the final 15 minutes against a big and physical Bulkeley team.
“It’s about building confidence,” Emanuele said. “We are a skilled team. It comes down to belief in yourself and the team. The results are coming and I think we’re improving.”
During Emanuele’s first run as coach, the Blue Dragons increased their win total each season between 2012 and 2014 and qualified for the state tournament each time. In the three seasons after he left, the program won six of 48 matches under Jon Harder.
Instead of calling this season a rebuild, Emanuele spun it as “building for the future.” Players have been receptive to his philosophy and system and he likes their work ethic and character. There are only four seniors on the roster.
“They have to learn how to win. The big part of it is the mental game,” he said. “We have been improving every game, every day, from the preseason all the way through to now.”
Badibanga scored his fourth goal of the season in the 12th minute Monday to give Middletown the early lead. It was set up by Joao Oliveira, a freshman who is turning heads with his technical ability. Oliveira’s first varsity goal was the Blue Dragons’ first goal of the season in their 3-0 win over Platt last week.
Bulkeley (1-1-1) tied the match when the ball found Charles Mputu’s foot in a crowded box and he sent it past senior keeper Connor Vogel in the 31st minute.
“We were mentally disrupted after they tied the game,” Badibanga said. “Coach got us pumped up at halftime.”
Said Emanuele: “In the first half we gave Bulkeley too much space, especially in the midfield. We were not winning the 50-50 balls. The goal they scored was too easy. We should have been more urgent there. We addressed that at halftime. I thought we were much better all the way around in the second half.”
Four minutes after Middletown missed a chance to score the go-ahead goal, Badibanga sent a ball from the left wing into the middle, where Prince caught Bulkeley’s keeper cheating to the left. He put a shot off his right foot into the upper-right corner of the net.
“We needed a goal and I was there,” Prince said.
Vogel, a team captain along with Badibanga and junior Jayden Koski, said he likes the tone Emanuele has set for this season — which continues with a Friday night game at Bristol Central.
“Coach Harder is the only coach I knew. Coach Emanuele is more intense and really motivating,” Vogel said. “He can set a fire under you. If we’re not playing as a team, he says we won’t find success, either on or off the field.”
As last-year players, Badibanga and Vogel said they realize they have a responsibility to set an example for Middletown’s core of young players as they advance in the program. That core includes juniors Collin Chlebowski and Jason Connelly, and sophomores Joe Rigano, Ricky Romano, Anthony Bocchio, Zachary Hartzell and Zachary Lombardo.
“Coach Emanuele is trusting us as seniors and as captains to guide the younger players,” Badibanga said.
Said Vogel: “The young guys know we can only go upward.”