East Hartford boys soccer will play some of the toughest teams in the area this regular season, including Class L contender E.O. Smith-Storrs and Class M contender Tolland. But coach Mike Vendetti still wants a shot at one more team: 2016 Class LL champion Farmington.
After spending the last five years trying to help East Hartford go from underdog to contender, Vendetti, who played for Farmington in high school, is hoping his team can take the next step this season.
"I reiterated to the team during the preseason that I don't want to be the team that upsets the big dogs anymore. I want to be one of the big dogs," Vendetti said. "I want teams to come out gunning for us."
When he took over five years ago, East Hartford needed a new field and was still working on developing a culture of success. But with the help of a dedicated group of players, including many who have come from the same families, the Hornets have started to raise the program's profile.
After milestone victories against Hall-West Hartford, Glastonbury and Wethersfield in the regular season, the players have bought into the process. But they also want to show they can win a big game in November after four straight losses in the first round. Seniors Ryswick Innocent and Patrick Agyemang both watched their brothers come through the ranks at East Hartford, and both are in position to be two of the top midfielders in the area. Senior midfielder/forward Tyshawn Rose, junior defender Joseph Boakye and sophomore Dante Talamini will also play significant roles.
E.O. Smith's Return
Before an E.O. Smith practice last week, coach John Blomstrann put on a T-shirt that was two decades old.
It listed every championship the team has won. The last was 1998.
"They want to add to the list — it has been a long time,'" Blomstrann said. "I definitely believe this is our best chance we've had in a long time."
Anchored by their version of the core five, the Panthers are ready to return the once dominant program to prominence. After reaching the Class L semifinals last year and losing to Barlow, the Panthers have eight starters back. The senior trio of midfielder Will Toomey, forward Cooper Knecht and midfielder Larson Richards are among the top players in the area at their positions. But they've got plenty of support from Ricardo Baltazar and Leo Melchor.
A few days after Avon missed the state tournament for the first time in 25 years, coach Dave Zlatin held a special practice for this year's returning players.
He told his junior class (now seniors) they could help plan the first part of practice.
"We weren't satisfied — it was all about turning the page," Zlatin said. "That was the first step toward this season."
Led by a motivated senior class, including Riley Welter and Collin Dryfe, Avon is hoping to prove that last year wasn't the new normal for the proud program. Zlatin called last season: "the worst in school history." The Falcons set program records for most losses and fewest wins.
"I want to restore our program to where we've been the last decade," Zlatin said. "I think they're hungry. They're eager to show that last year is not who we are."
After winning the program's fifth title in nine seasons last November, Farmington has not taken the foot off the gas pedal in 2017.
"It is probably one of our most competitive schedules," coach Steve Waters said.
The Indians play Glastonbury in the opener Friday and later have games with Simsbury, E.O. Smith, Hall, Southington, Wethersfield, Avon, Berlin, South Windsor and Conard. But with one of the most experienced lineups in the state, the Indians are hoping to pick up where they left off last year when they defeated Shelton for the Class LL championship, 3-0. The Indians will look to Michael Mello, Blake Rutenberg and John DiTommaso to set the tone. Juniors Brennan Hughes and Zach Marsh will help dictate the pace of games.
After reaching the Class M semifinals and losing to rival Ellington in overtime, Granby graduated seven starters. But despite the changes, senior midfielder Ben Ranicar has continued to push forward with the same determination he showed last year.
"He was our engine last year, and he's going to be again this year," Granby coach Dave Emery said. "He realizes if something needs to get done, he's willing to shoulder the load and show the way. He's a role model."
Sophomore midfielder Austin Wickham and junior defender Jack DiMeo will help Ranicar as they look to make another run in Class M. ... After a long awaited title, Coventry returns senior center midfielders Mike Sisk and Alec Erskine, who combined for 27 goals last year. ... Windsor Locks returns nine starters, including Caleb Tarbell, who had 10 goals and 14 assists last year. ... After a disappointing loss to Old Saybrook in the Class S quarterfinals last year, Somers is motivated to return to the final for the third time in four years. Led by senior goalie Brody Rheault, center back Colin Whitford and finisher Jake Regulbuto (17 goals in 2016), the Spartans once again figure to be one of the top teams in Class S. "It definitely stung [last year losing to Old Saybrook], and it's a big focus this year," coach Rick Kelley said.
Before Lewis Mills' first practice, coach Ben Kulas did an unusual thing: He told his players to take out their phones.
Kulas, who is six wins from his 100th victory, wanted to go over last season's Class M quarterfinal loss to Brookfield.
"We watched clips of that game," Kulas said. "We want to learn from these mistakes. Last year is last year, but we want to build on it."
The Spartans, who include forward Nick Lutrzykowski, are hoping they can correct those mistakes this year as they line up to make another run at the Class M title. ... A year after it reached the Class M final and lost to Brookfield, Ellington has another promising group back, including senior forward Alex Domingoes, who had 16 goals last year, and sophomore midfielder Jimmy Maznicki. "Some kids even right now understand where they probably are for the team, and that doesn't always happen," Gurnon said.
A New Season
Glastonbury's run of three straight championships came to an end last season against Simsbury in the second round of Class LL. But led by the senior trio of midfielders Sebby Sanzaro and Jacob Gardner and goalie Bennett Cole, the Tomahawks are looking forward to a new season. "This is 2017 — we've got a new group, a new team and a new attitude," coach Mark Landers said. ... Led by seniors Rob Tomasello and Dylan Smith, Simsbury is looking to build off that victory. After becoming the first team to beat Glastonbury in the tournament in four years, the Trojans will try to take the next step and return to the semifinals. ... Seniors Aidan Devaney and Ryan Greenberg give Tolland one of the best defenses in the CCC. ... In his first season, Portland coach Joseph Santavenere will look to sweeper Luke DeToro to help lead the way. ... James Tierinni starts his first season as coach at Manchester with four starters back, including midfielder Matt Kropp. ... It is the final season for associate head coach and former head coach Charlie Rayner with Windham Tech after 40 seasons. ... Old Lyme is faced with a rebuilding project after graduating seven starters, but sophomore goalie Ryan Tetreault can steal some games as the team develops. ... Berlin's Noah Silverman is one of the top returning midfielders in the state. ... With seven starters back, including Jeffrey Turo, Middletown should be improved. ... East Catholic will turn to Tyler Andrade and RHAM will look to Nicky Yetifshesky in the middle of the field. ... Southington has one of the CCC's top goalies in Evan Daddona, and Conard's Matt Flanagan is one of the conference's toughest one-on-one defenders. Hall senior Max Drazen is one of the league's top forwards. ... Haddam-Killingworth's Ben McLaughin has the ability to frustrate defenders and be one of the top players in the Shoreline conference. ... Cromwell's Jack Holcomb is back after six goals and seven assists in 2016.