WESTPORT >> “Our record really doesn’t reflect the type of team we are,” Lauren Garcia said. “So we’re going to go into any game knowing we can come out with a win.”
At the Wakeman Turf in Westport it’s a little past 4 p.m. and the Staples girls’ soccer team is in the midst of sweating through a series of sprints before practice can end.
It’s a mild, late October afternoon, but the feel of fall is definitely in the air. It also happens to be Halloween. But the only thing on the players’ minds is finishing the grueling sprints. Junior Megan Root is the first to the end line and back. Practice ends after three more runs.
“In states the thing you run into that you don’t see in the regular season is overtime. And it’s really important to be the team that can keep fighting. You obviously saw us running sprints,” Root said with a smile and short laugh after practice.
It’s three days before the start of the Class LL state tournament. Staples missed the FCIAC tournament for the third straight year and has spent the past week getting ready for its first-round state tournament game, one it would lose 2-0 to Danbury.
For four players on the team – juniors Maggie Walsh, Garcia, and Root, and senior Gea Mitas – it’s been a whirlwind season, experiencing the highs and lows on and off the field. It’s also their last season playing all together at the high school level; four individuals who grew up with one another and the sport.
“I think the four of them in particular had a big part in bringing the team together,” Staples head coach Heather Driscoll said.
“They are certainly leaders on the team, they’re upperclassmen and freshmen really looked up to them, probably from their ability, but also who they are as people.”
Here are the stories of the four this season.
Photos of Staples’ 2013 soccer season
Senior Gea Mitas
In a twisted and ill-fated way it seemed fitting that Mitas finished her high school soccer career going all out. She was injured on a play against Danbury and sat on the bench with an ice pack as the final minutes played out in the state tournament.
“Gea is one of the toughest players on our team,” said Driscoll, in her second season. “Her willingness to go in for a tackle, it’s certainly her best attribute. She’s probably one of the best players I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching in her ability to win the ball, and she just attacks everything. She’s unbelievable at heading the ball.”
Mitas, who played center midfield and served as one of the team’s three captains, almost tied the game at 1 in the Class LL matchup but her header was caught by the Hatters’ keeper.
Quieter than a lot of the players, Mitas’ play and more of her personality shone on the pitch.
“You would never think that when you play against her,” Driscoll said of Mitas’ disposition. “She’s really tough in there.”
At the end of the season she was still contemplating if she would play in college.
Junior Megan Root
On the varsity team since her freshman year, Root was the only junior captain for the Wreckers this season. Root, whose primary position was defense, wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge, usually matching up against the other team’s top offensive threat. She made her presence known in any situation. She earned FCIAC honorable mention this fall.
“Certainly an amazing captain, she’s a fantastic leader,” Driscoll said. “And she’s an incredible athlete. She works really hard anytime she steps on the field; she’s always trying to make herself better no matter what it is she is doing in life.”
Junior Lauren Garcia
Not heard but always seen is the way to define Garcia. The dangerous and speedy wide midfielder was one of Staples’ top offensive players.
“Lauren, she is just an amazing player,” Driscoll said. “She isn’t going to be that loud person that’s going to demand your attention, but the way she plays, she’s a focus for every team that we play against.”
Garcia earned FCIAC second-team honors and was selected as the team’s MVP. Garcia has been on the varsity team since her freshman year and is regarded more for her finesse skills and ability to move the ball, as Driscoll played her down both the right and left flank this season.
“You see her touching the ball and her skills, it would draw anyone’s eye,” Driscoll said.
Junior Maggie Walsh
The third-year center midfielder for Staples was a “workhorse” according to Driscoll. Walsh’s outgoing persona was reflective on the field.
“Whether it’s training or a game, whether it’s a light practice or it’s a practice leading up to a big game, you’re going to get the same effort from her every time,” Driscoll said. “And she’s positive with everyone.”
Walsh, who also had an eye for the net, explained she focused on maintaining her overall game and helping more with this team.
“She’s much more controlled. She has so much energy and has lungs for days,” Driscoll said. “But we talked about how it hurt our team in terms of shape and that was something we needed from her. She’s definitely staying collected and staying in her position and maintaining that shape.”
Driscoll, in just her second year at Staples said she could immediately spot the chemistry and natural flow on the field from the four girls.
“There was definitely a familiarity,” she said.
The four agreed they started kicking a soccer ball at around age 5 or 6 and first played at the recreational level.
“I remember we were arch rivals,” Root said with a laugh, referring to playing against Garcia’s team at a young age. “We would like highlight the game on the calendar and that would be the game to win. That would be our version of the championship.”
At the U11 level all four played for the Westport Blue ‘A’ team, a travel squad.
“We won the championship that year,” Root said matter-of-factly. “We beat Fairfield in PKs (penalty kicks).”
It’s only been 10 or so years but the girls love reminiscing on the memories together and how they fell in love with the game of soccer. For most, they got involved because of an older sibling’s influence. They stuck with it for various reasons.
“That’s what I was best at,” Root said.
“It was like a fun thing to do,” Garcia said. “Also, you feel awesome and you’re in shape, and you can eat whatever you want,” she added with a laugh.
The four played together at U12 for Beachside and after their U13 season, Garcia and Walsh went to a different squad, while Mitas and Root stuck with Beachside through the U15 level. Now, Mitas, Root and Garcia all play for U17 SoccerPlus Elite, while Walsh plays for U17 CFC United.
On the field
“It moved fast, it’s always fast,” Root said of the season on Oct. 31 after practice. “You have preseason, that’s a little slow, and tryouts …one second you have the whole season in front of you, make a couple mistakes and you’re like, ‘No it’s fine, we have these games we can win. And all the sudden it’s close to over and you’re not in FCIACs, and you’re like what happened?”
It’s a reflective statement to how the past four months played out for Staples.
The start of the schedule for the Wreckers was almost like a dream they never wanted to wake up from. The team won its first four games and entered the last match in September with a 5-2 record. It was the best start for the program in at least four seasons.
“I actually took a screenshot of us at the top of the FCIAC because we’re at the top of our division, which I’ve like never seen,” said Root said on Sept. 27 after a tough 3-0 loss to Ridgefield.
Garcia explained coming into the season in August with the roster heavily-based of underclassman, there was skepticism on how everything would unfold.
“We never thought we’d be as good as we are, looking back,” she said.
Then, as Root mentioned, almost a month later the losses started piling up. The Wreckers slowly slipped in the conference standings as the month of October hit. Heading into an Oct. 8 game against Trumbull, the Wreckers had dropped four straight, including a 5-0 loss to eventual state champion St. Joseph.
Before facing Trumbull, the girls talked about what the losses meant and what they took away.
“As captains we made sure about giving motivation to younger players,” Root said of her duties along with Mitas and fellow senior captain Meghan Lonergan. “I mean four losses in a row is hard. As captains we just try to make sure everyone is intense and ready.”
As the girls spoke and bantered back and forth, there was no downfall in the demeanor. The confidence was high and there was still hope to make the conference tournament.
“I think we can make the FCIACs if we all work hard,” Walsh said. “We know how hard we worked in the last few games.”
“We know we’re capable of beating these teams,” Garcia added.
The Wreckers rebounded with a 2-0 win over Trumbull and then picked up another win against Norwalk. But two key losses to Darien and Westhill ended the Wreckers’ chances at making FCIACs.
While the team was left with just the state tournament to prepare for, it was hard to pinpoint an exact reason as to why the losses occurred.
“I think we could have made the FCIACs this year, we just had a lot of mental breakdowns,” Garcia said.
For Walsh, her season ended before the rest. She suffered her first concussion in the second to last regular season game against Westhill. She sat out the rest of the season.
“I struggled with not being able to play for my team,” Walsh said. “It was very hard for me to watch them play because I wanted to be out there playing with them. I wanted to give them everything I could and I struggled with not being able to because of my concussion.”
OFF THE FIELD
The only senior of the bunch, Mitas admitted her last year of high school hasn’t been too stressful. Of the four, she decided at the end junior year not to pursue soccer in college. She said if an offer came up, then she’d decide if she’d take it.
“My No. 1 priority is getting into a good school,” she explained.
She wants to go into the health sciences in the physician’s assistant direction.
“She has a plan and everything,” Garcia said of Mitas’ future. The other three laughed.
For Root, Garcia and Walsh, SATs, ACTs, already getting ready to apply to some colleges has filled the agenda outside of soccer. Unlike Mitas, the three definitely have plans to play soccer at the next level.
“It’s stressful,” Root said. “Junior year is so much work, so it’s like a lot of work plus you have to do this recruiting stuff and with high school soccer and academics and extracurriculars.”
Walsh was the lone one to make a decision on college. She made a verbal commitment to Fairfield University midway through the season. Walsh’s older sister, Alli, was the 2012 MAAC Defensive Player of the Year for Fairfield.
“My sister played there and it was definitely a right fit,” she said. “It’s a relief to have the process pretty much done with.”
Root, who also write for the Staples school newspaper said it’s a struggle to find time for anything else.
“Sleep is definitely something we tend to neglect,” she said.
WHAT NEXT YEAR WILL BRING
At the end of season banquet on Nov. 17, Root, Garcia and Walsh were all named captains for their senior year along with Katie Lesch. A week after the season was over, Walsh said she was cleared to play club soccer.
The high school season is over but for the individuals who followed, this past fall had its own memories.
“They (Root, Garcia, Mitas, Walsh) were able to work hard during the whole season, they were never affected by anything (winning or not winning),” Driscoll said. “I think it motivated them (when we were in our slump) a little bit to keep working hard.”
The Wreckers finished the year with a 8-9-0 record. But the end was more than the wins and losses.
“It’s all worth it when you get to the end and you’re really playing the game.”