MIDDLETOWN — Xavier teacher, Xavier coach … and Xavier sports psychologist?
As the Falcons enter the high school soccer postseason on a 16-game unbeaten streak, Brian Fitzgerald’s message to his team has been pretty clear: If you check the record, check your egos, too.
Xavier’s 15-0-1 regular season equals the Jeff Bagwell-led 1985 team for most wins in school history. That mark is the best in Class LL and the Falcons are the No. 1 seed in the SCC tournament as they get ready for a quarterfinal game against No. 8 Guilford on Friday at Larry McHugh Field (6:30 p.m. approximate start).
Fitzgerald is proud of what the Falcons have achieved to date. He just doesn’t want them to get carried away knowing they have the opportunity to play well into November.
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“What we have done is a great accomplishment, but our main task this year with the record was to keep these kids grounded,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s hard to look at the numbers and not get excited. But every day we tell the team, ‘Hey, it’s the regular season, we are playing for more. We are playing for the SCC (title). We are playing for states.
“There’s more at stake than an unbeaten season. That’s great, but at the end of the day we want to win championships. So we’re hoping every day to challenge them to play better and get better.”
Xavier has a nice blend of seniors driven to win and a strong nucleus of juniors following their lead (Fitzgerald said the program is actually “ahead of schedule” in terms of success). He has at his disposal a cadre of scorers, a top-flight goalkeeper in Christian Wade and a team-first mentality that took root in preseason.
“We worked all summer together building team chemistry and working on playing together, finding out how each of us plays,” said senior captain Mike Salley, who has assisted on 17 of Xavier’s 49 goals. “We played our second preseason game against South Windsor (12-2 regular season to date), which is a very good team, and we dominated through our passing. We knew where each other would be. We played so unselfishly.
“We were very excited after that game and we’ve just built on that through the season. A big focus of the seniors this year was us wanting to work more (together) earlier and it’s paid off.”
Fitzgerald’s moment of clarity also hit early — in a preseason match against Saint John’s, a fellow Xaverian Brothers school, in Massachusetts.
“To not only beat Saint John’s, but to beat them in Boston — the kids used it as momentum and the wins started coming and coming,” he said.
Fitzgerald is in his eighth season as coach and has not had a collection of talent like this since 2013, the last time Xavier qualified for the SCC tournament. The Falcons also were unbeaten that year (12-0-4) and went on to win the conference championship.
Since then, Xavier has had seasons of five, four, six and five wins.
When this year’s body of work rounded into something special, “at first the players began to compare themselves to the ‘13 team. That was one of my teams, and I told them it’s a little early to start comparing yourselves to that team,” Fitzgerald said. “If they brought it up, I said, ‘Guys, you’re not there yet.’ ”
If not, then they are getting close.
Fitzgerald’s offense is as sharp as his defense. The offense runs through Salley and averages just north of three goals per game. Forwards Brendan Montano (team-high 11 goals) and Alec Sotomayor (eight) are the finishers that Xavier admittedly did not have in 2017. Henrique Araujo and Christian Schaefer (six goals each) are threats with the ball at their feet as well.
“It could be anyone on any given day,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s another thing that adds to having such a great turnaround from last season. Any one of Henrique, Brendan, Alec, Christian or others can score on any given day. It definitely makes things harder for any team scouting us. You cannot man-mark any one guy.”
Meanwhile, Wade’s work in the net has been terrific — and sometimes overlooked, Salley and his coach said. The 6-foot-4 senior has been in a zone of late — after Xavier and Hand tied two weeks ago, Xavier’s last five opponents have not scored. Wade has let in only six goals in 16 games and has nine shutouts.
“He’s been lights out for us. I can think of at least three games this season that, without him, would have been losses,” Salley said.
“Christian has been absolutely exceptional in goal,” Fitzgerald said. “His leap from last year to this year has been great. His positioning is very solid. Some of the things we’ve challenged him on, like positioning and reaction … he has huge reaction saves for us in quite a few games.”
Wade said he likes that there isn’t one player solely responsible for Xavier’s ascent this fall.
“Last year was tough. There were a couple of close games that we were on the wrong side of,” he said. “We are playing more as a team and the defenders do a great job in front of me, but I’ve got to help them out.”
He added, “We have a lot of good players. Morale is high, we are all brothers, we are all friends and we just want to win together.”
Prior to the Falcons’ match Friday, Mercy plays an SCC tournament quarterfinal game against Guilford at 4 p.m. The Tigers are the SCC’s No. 1 seed after a 14-1-1 season. After Friday, the SCC boys tournament is scheduled to continue with the semifinals Tuesday and the final next Thursday.
The Class LL tournament gets started the following week. For Xavier, the field includes the likes of one-loss Fairfield Prep, South Windsor, Farmington, Cheshire, defending state champion Glastonbury and a couple of FCIAC teams.
“We have done our homework on a lot teams, not that you want to look ahead, but we definitely have looked at some of our possible opponents,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re doing our homework because we have a chance of doing something special.”
Salley said he and his teammates are in step with how their coach wants them to look at what they have accomplished and what could be more to come.
“One of the main values of Xavier is humility, so we are taking it one game at a time. Any team can beat any team,” Salley said. “Fairfield Prep had an undefeated season (13-0) going until Sheehan (0-0 tie) and Shelton (2-1 loss), teams it had beaten previously. That just shows how easily, if you have one off game, how easily you can fall.”
“This (next) game is one of the most important games we’ve ever played. And it’s true. So we have been buliding on the momentum but we’ll always continue to work harder and harder.”