Four different Wethersfield players tallied goals as the Eagles defeated Newington 4-2 at Cottone Field last Tuesday night.
It marked the end of a superb regular season for Wethersfield, who finished 9-6-1 and qualified for the state tournament for the second consecutive year.
Less than three minutes into the contest, Lorien Touponse scored a goal to give the home team an early advantage. Freshman Molly Bowers and Zoe Kleeblatt then added goals within a minute of each other, making it 3-0 before the midway point of the first half.
Newington’s Skylyn Samson scored back-to-back goals, one in each half, narrowing the gap to a single score with eight minutes to play and the road Indians had a couple of chances to tie things up but Wethersfield’s defense, headed by goalie Anna Kallajian, preserved the lead down the stretch.
Summer Mitchell added an insurance goal with 1:30 to play in regulation, securing the win.
Earlier this season, the two teams had battle to a 0-0 draw on Sept 21 and both programs are heading in the right direction, developing a rivalry that will be interesting to watch over the coming years.
Eagles Reaching New Heights
Colleen Budaj has seen her team improved every season since taking over the head coaching duties at WHS.
2018 has been the most successful season to date.
“It’s tremendously satisfying. It’s not just one or two kids; it’s truly the whole team coming together. We’re feeding into their strengths and they’re coming together as a team,” said Budaj, who is assisted by her husband, Steve, on the sidelines, “We weren’t sure what to expect, because we only had three kids with varsity experience coming into this year but we went into this with the right mentality. Those were irreplaceable kids that we lost, but we weren’t looking to replace those seniors. We looked at the kids that we had and Steve talked about changing up our configurations to build around the strengths of our team. The kids have really bought into it.”
The new offensive attack has worked wonders as the scoring production has increased, including 15 total goals in their final three wins of the regular season.
“It’s something that they do in soccer now, so I looked at it from a soccer background and what we had coming back” Steve Budaj said of the offensive approach, “We wanted to teach it through the scrimmages and teach it through the preseason and it actually worked really well with the kids that we have.”
Following five wins and a tourney appearance a season ago, the team lost nearly their entire varsity roster to graduation and only had two seniors coming back. The Budajs have filled the voids with a deep and hungry group of young stars, which includes their daughter Sydney Budaj, who is excelling as a sophomore.
Leadership on the field is coming from Kallajian, who is one of the two returning seniors, and junior captains Kleeblatt and Mitchell.
“It’s intimidating to lose a lot of players and I know other teams were looking at it as an advantage, but I just kind of laughed at that because no matter who we lost we were coming to play and to give it all that we have,” said Kallajian, “These girls have done a great job at doing that all season.”
“We didn’t have a goalie walking into this season. We must have tried seven or eight different kids in the first week and I give her a lot of credit to leave a field position as a senior and step up and do this for the team. She’s worked really hard,” Budaj said of her keeper.
The first-year goaltender is the vocal leader for a defense that has registered eight shutouts.
“Communication is the biggest key, we definitely stress communication. They don’t have eyes in the back of their head so I try to be as helpful to them as they are to me,” Kallajian said of the team’s defenders, “The biggest thing is having the girls in front of me, they really hold their ground. They’re just sturdy as a rock and it’s definitely made me more comfortable in the goal and more secure because I know they have my back.”
Kleeblatt, Mitchell, and Touponse have taken care of business on the offensive end of the field.
Touponse is the youngest of the three and her attacking nature has allowed her to play at a varsity level from day one.
“I think having experience on the field as a freshman has been really helpful. When I first started playing I would just freak out, but as you keep playing you learn to calm yourself down and you know when to pass. It’s not about who scores the goal, it’s about the team scoring,” stated the confident sophomore, “We have great captains and our team is really close-knit. Everyone helps each other out.”
Mitchell’s speed has been an asset to the up-tempo offensive mentality.
“We want to stay aggressive and we want to work together as a team. We just want to play our game and give it our all,” said Mitchell, “I think we definitely felt some pressure early in the season because of the adjustment to having a lot of the varsity team graduate, but everyone on this team is so brave and they work together really well.”
Kleeblatt is a natural leader, who also stars for Budaj on the school’s softball team.
“I’ve had Zoe in class too. You get to know a kid when you spend that much time with them. You know when to push her, you know when she needs a pat on the back, and you know when she needs to be pulled back a little,” stated Budaj, “Zoe has a strong stick and she’s a ferocious competitor. She wants to win and she’s going to give you everything she has on the field.”
“Being a junior captain it is somewhat difficult because captains are usually seniors. At first it was a little difficult but then they started to see me as more of a leader and as the season has gone on they’ve gotten used to it really well,” said Kleeblatt, who has seen the team’s upward movement since joining the program in 2016, “It’s pretty awesome. I wasn’t here those years when we didn’t win a game, but I’ve gotten to see how much better we’ve gotten these past few years.”
Along with helping the team win, Kleeblatt and the other captains have also been mentoring a strong freshman class, which includes Bowers, Emily Messina, Logan Lisella, Caroline Provost, and Kathryn Bello.
With the influx of new talent, the back-to-back tourney appearances are just the beginning in Wethersfield.
New Era in Newington
The day after the loss to Wethersfield, Newington closed out the 2018 season with a 4-2 victory at Farmington, earning their fourth win of the season.
For a team that didn’t win a game in 2017, the win total and point production is a step in the right direction.
“The talent is one thing, but it’s a culture change too. It’s getting used to being a winning program and I think we’re getting there,” said head coach Veronica Grubin, who didn’t have a senior on her roster last fall.
This year the second-year coach had eight seniors, including Maya Gajowiak who scored a pair of goals in the win over Farmington. Sophomore Kali Lessard also netted two goals in the season-finale victory.
Gajowiak and Lessard have helped paced the offense, along with Kelly Iskra, who morphed into a goal-scoring machine after switching positions at the midway point.
“Maya has always been a solid player. She’s a three year starter, all-conference last year and she controls the offense,” stated Grubin, who served as an assistant prior to taking over in 2017, “Kelly is our leading goal scorer. It’s amazing to see what she’s been able to do because we made that switch for her from defense to offense halfway through the season.”
Samson, who scored both goals at Wethersfield, has developed as an offensive threat during her junior campaign.
“She’s a naturally aggressive player and she’s a smart player. Her stick skills and her fundamentals have really caught up with that and she has a good game sense,” Grubin said, “All those things put together will allow her to be a big force next year.”
In goal, senior Sharon Sherpa started a majority of the season and junior Taylor Jackson got some time between the pipes in preparation for 2019.
“They’ve both been really solid. We face some really tough competition in this conference and they do well. They keep their heads in the games, because in some games with went down 5-0, 6-0, 7-0 and they come out fighting every game.”
The goalies had help from a variety of unsung defenders, including junior standout Sam Giudice.
“The amount of defensive saves she’s had this season is just ridiculous. She’s stopped a lot of goals from going in.” Grubin said of Giudice, “I’m super impressed with her.”
Next fall Grubin will have experience coming back on both sides. The returnees can lean of what they’ve learned from a great group of departing seniors, who were able to close their high school careers with a win and left a mark on the blossoming program.
“It’s a huge stepping stone towards next year. They’ve shown them the steps that it takes and the hard work and dedication that goes into it. They’ve also showed them how to score and be a winning team,” Grubin said of her seniors, “They’ve helped change the culture, that’s their lasting impression.”
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Jack DeGirolamo- Newington (Soccer): DeGirolamo stopped all nine shots he faced as Newington shutout Bulkeley 2-0 last Thursday. It was the seventh time this season that the senior goalie has blanked an opponent, helping the Indians finished with seven wins and earn a spot in the state tournament.
Jacob Shettleworth- Middletown (Soccer): Shettleworth scored a goal in a 2-1 win over Berlin last Monday. The senior, playing in his last home game, helped Middletown win on Senior Night, earning their fifth win of the season.
Bella Montalvo- Rocky Hill (Soccer): Montalvo score both goals in a 2-0 victory over New Britain last Monday night in the Terriers regular season finale. The junior forward totaled 14 goals this season, helping Rocky Hill finish with eight wins and earning a spot in the state tournament.
Bryce Karstetter- Cromwell (Football): Karstetter threw a career-high six touchdown passes, all in first half and four to Nick Wright, during a 48-18 blowout of Morgan on Senior Night last Thursday. The senior has 27 total touchdowns (25 passing, 2 rushing) this season, helping guide the Panthers to a 7-1 mark.
Owen Gagne- Wethersfield (Cross Country): Gagne backed up a great freshman outdoor track season with an excellent cross country season, earning medals at all four invitationals. The sophomore earned all-conference after winning two CCC triangular meets and became the first male cross country runner at Wethersfield since 2008 to qualify for the state open. According to head coach Jeff Sanborn, Gagne also ran what is believed to be the third fastest WHS time ever at Wickham Park.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin