The last time Berlin girls soccer played for a state championship was 1998, when the Redcoats won the Class M title to cap off an undefeated season.
So when the 2017 team entered the M Tournament seeded 20th with an 8-8 record, in a season first-year coach Katie Amenta had called a rebuilding year, there wasn’t a lot of expectation outside the program.
That suited Berlin just fine, as the Redcoats put together big win after big win on the way to their first title game appearance in 19 years.
“I think that as a team we liked the idea of going in as the 20th seed without a winning record,” Julia Sisti, one of four senior captains, said. “Because it was like no teams would see us coming. And once we started winning we were like, ‘How great would it be if the 20th seed made a run to the finals?’”
Berlin would do just that, eventually falling to second-seeded Granby, 3-0. But for Amenta, who had been a part of the team that won it all in 1998, the run to get back there started long before the season got underway.
“Everything came together at the right time,” Amenta said. “We had a vision of what this group could do based on skill. And the one thing I truly did know was that our success was going to come down to how fit we were.”
A new training regiment was instituted. Starting in June, the girls ran track to help build endurance to go deep into games, especially with a schedule featuring Class LL, L and M contenders.
“We’ve never done that,” captain Alana Garofalo said. “We’re always a fit team but the effort we put in felt like a college team. And it wasn’t a bad thing, it was just different. But it really did help pay off.”
Berlin went 5-1 to open the season, its lone loss a 1-0 defeat to the then three-time defending Class LL champs Glastonbury. Then they suffered another tough 1-0 loss, this time to RHAM, the eventual No. 1 seed and runner-up in Class L.
That loss was the first of five in a row, a streak that included Middletown (No. 11 seed in Class LL), Farmington (No. 11 in Class L) and Wethersfield (No. 8 seed in Class L). The team also dropped a game to Tolland, seeded fourth in Class L.
“There was still so many good things that came out of each game,” Amenta said. “I tried to have them think about where they would compete on the Class M level. If they were hanging with Glastonbury, with RHAM, if we’re giving these tough teams tough competition, they certainly could find success in the postseason.”
“We learned that whatever we did, we did it as a team,” captain Cameron Michalek said. “Whether we were winning or whether we were losing, it was a whole team effort.”
Helping Berlin through that tough stretch was a stalwart group of seven seniors, including captains Sisti, Garofalo, Michalek and Lexi Kavarsky, as well as junior keeper Lindsey Walsh.
“All it takes is one senior to say, ‘Oh, this stinks,’ or ‘I’m done,’” Amenta said, “and then everyone is done. And they never did that and I think that was the difference.”
Berlin kicked off the title game run with a win over East Catholic in the first round, behind two goals from talented freshman Ashley Wenzel. In the second round they cruised to a 7-0 win over No. 4 Platt Tech that saw seven different players score.
Then came Berlin’s first big moment, the first real payoff to the preseason work, in the quarterfinals against No. 12 Cromwell. Down a goal, Kavarsky scored less than a minute into the second half. Then with regulation winding down and the team starting to lose steam, Sisti scored with nine seconds to play to break a 1-1 tie.
“When we were gassed in the final few minutes and Julia stepped up and scored that goal,” Michalek said, “we realized that all the effort and all the running we did in the beginning of the season really paid off.”
It paid off even more in the semifinals, when Berlin took on No. 1 Lewis Mills. Berlin hung with the Spartans all game, even taking the early lead on a Kavarsky goal in the 22nd minute. The Redcoats would win on penalty kicks from Sisti, Garofalo and Wenzel, with Walsh making three straight saves to seal the win.
And while their unexpected title game didn’t end the way they’d hoped, the team still walked away satisfied with what they had been able to accomplish, in a postseason run no one thought would happen.
“It was kind of just a testament to all our hard work over the season,” Sisti said. “We had a lot of obstacles that we had to overcome and then it all came together for us in the end, and that was really sweet.”