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Boys' Soccer Reloads In 2012!
Cheshire High School boys’ soccer head coach Artur Branco feels that not everyone can play the way his program does. It isn’t enough for his teams to just play soccer, but do so within a system that allows them to make decisions and rely on each other.
“We are traditionally a team that gets better as the year continues because it takes time for our players to take what we tell them and put it on the field,” explained Branco.
The staff has been busy coaching up a youthful team this fall. Cheshire graduated 12 seniors off last year’s squad that won the Housatonic Division title (6-1-1; tie with Shelton) and earned the Southern Connecticut Conference top seed, both for the first time since the 2007 season. Cheshire (13-4-4) reached the Class LL quarterfinals for the second straight season, falling 2-1 against Guilford.
“We still have a pretty decent group on the right track,” said Branco. “We need (junior varsity) players to step up into positions. ”
“I think we have enough experience to be able to make up for our losses a bit,” stated Devin Lerner.
The most varsity experience comes from senior captains. Nick Berardi, Sam Donahue, Lerner, and Matt Mueller contributed heavily to the breakthrough last fall. Alex Bauer was also recognized as a captain this season.
“It’s definitely an honor to take on the role of the kids from last year. They were such great players, so we want to do them justice,” Berardi said.
Berardi, a forward, has started since joining the program. He creates many shots with his speed sprinting down the outside of the pitch. His junior year can be described as clutch since Berardi netted game-winners against Daniel Hand (1-0; Southern Connecticut Conference quarterfinals), along with at Xavier (3-2) and William Hall (1-0; Class LL Second Round). He was All-Housatonic last fall.
“Nick is a dynamic player who we look for to have another great season,” said Branco. “He has been consistently productive.”
Cheshire swept all three meetings with Hand, the 2010 SCC Tournament Champions, last fall. The final meeting was unique due to the October snow storm that blanketed the field. Berardi finally ended the game in the second section of extra time.
“That game will be remembered for years to come because of how unique it was,” stated Branco.
His first game-winner capped a come-from-behind win at Xavier. Cheshire scored all three of their goals in the last five minutes to erase a 2-0 deficit.
The program found redemption by beating Hall. The year before, Cheshire lost 2-1 on the same field in overtime of the Class LL quarterfinals. CHS led that game 1-0 into the final 30 seconds. This time, 2012 graduate and goalkeeper Nick Velleca (14 saves) earned the shutout.
“Beating Hall was something we are proud of. We played a great brand of soccer that day,” Branco reflected.
The tandem of Berardi and 2012 graduate Mike Ranando (All-Class LL/All-Housatonic) represented a lethal scoring combination last season. In a 6-1 victory over Shelton on Senior Day, Ranando produced a career-high four goals. He set a school record by converting the first three within three minutes in the first half. Ranando joined fellow graduate Tyler Sweigard as Most Improved Players.
“Ranando is a huge loss,” said Branco. “I think he generated a goal a game last year. He just really broke through in his senior year and we hope our guys can follow that example.”
Without the scoring of Ranando and fellow graduate Labi Shaqiri, Mueller has been moved to the forward line this season. Classmates Billy Janes and Ross Caterino are new to the varsity level.
“It’s been tough finishing in the scrimmages,” said Mueller, of the pre-season. “We’ve been getting good chances (at the net), but have to put enough of them away.”
Mueller started in the mid-field last year. In consecutive wins over Xavier, Hand (1-0; first meeting), and Amity (2-1), he collected the winning assists.
“He has been good up top. Matt is so strong,” added Branco.
Donahue is the returning leader of a new mid-field. Cheshire graduated Arman Karbassioon (MVP/All-Housatonic) and Mike Carbone (Cheshire Kiwanis Sportsmanship Award), team captains with Velleca and Jeff Carbonella. Donahue shared the 2011 Ram Award with Carbonella.
“Donahue has been around awhile. He reads the game very well, so we want him to be the organizer,” explained Branco.
Freshman Jake Goldstein has already started in scrimmages. Senior Matt Mendonca, along with juniors Matt Weimer and Griffin Andes, are upperclassmen looking to make an impact.
“It’s tough (since) Arman was a rock. We didn’t have to worry about what was going on behind us,” stated Donahue. “Now that he is gone, we all have to step it up.”
Lerner has a similar role for the defensive unit that graduated Carbonella, Rob Carter (Endicott College-Beverly, Mass.), and Sweigard. Ben Gallo is another senior working in the middle. Bauer and junior Joe Phillips, along with sophomores Sal Rubano and Zach Winch, factor into a new unit.
“We had a very effective defense at the end of last season. We have kids willing to work on it,” stated Branco. “We expect a lot from Devin on the outside this year.”
“We’re not going to be as strong as we were I don’t think, but we’re definitely not going to be weak. We are going to make for them (graduates),” explained Lerner.
Graduation has turned the goalkeeper position from one of the most experienced areas to having players new to the varsity level. Velleca, a freshman at Central Connecticut State University, was a three-year starter who received All-Housatonic last year. Ian Clark also had extended minutes last season and combined with Velleca for 10 shutouts.
Senior Evan Colechia, sophomores Matt Skydel, junior Jeffrey Noel, and freshman Russell Jasman are competing to fill the position.
“We have decided on a keeper yet,” said Branco. “We are still evaluating these guys.”
Colechia, a boys’ volleyball co-captain, joined the team just this year.
“As a first-year senior, you don’t know what to expect, but I’ve been very impressed. Evan has a great attitude,” Branco said.
Branco felt it was an important step for CHS to regain the Housatonic title last fall. They initially worried that a 1-0 at Shelton would come back to cost them, but Cheshire responded with two wins at home. The second victory (2-0) came through the Class LL First Round.
“We’d put ourselves in position to win it (the division), but had it slip away in the last couple of years. We had many seniors last year, so it was great to see them get to leave with a championship,” reflected Branco.
With the exception of Senior Day, Cheshire and the Gaels (Oct. 3 and 20) have had many tight games in recent years. Amity (Oct. 1 and 17), Lyman Hall (Sept. 25, Oct. 12), and Sheehan (Sept. 22, Oct. 9) are other division rivals.
“Our goal is the Housatonic title, the SCC Championship, and onto to states. We play to win every game on the schedule,” stated Branco. “Our focus right now is our first game (on Tuesday against North Haven).”
Cheshire will have another shot against Guilford this year, visiting Bittner Park on Friday (3:45 p.m.) and then hosting the Indians on Oct. 6. Cheshire has also scheduled North Haven (rematch on Oct. 24), Xavier (Sept. 18, Oct. 22), and Branford (Sept. 28, Oct. 15). When Cheshire hosts North Haven at 3:45 p.m., it will be the program’s first game on Cheshire Alumni Turf and Track.
“It’s awesome,” said Berardi. “It’s so much better than playing on grass. There is a true bounce and you don’t have to worry about the ball sliding.”
Cheshire’s run in the SCC last year was cut short, losing 1-0 in the semifinals at Notre Dame-West Haven. The program has reached the Class LL quarterfinals four times in the last six seasons, each time coming up short by a single goal.
“We’ve gotten the guys playing well at the right time,” reflected Branco. “We’ve been knocking at the door and eventually we will kick it down.”
“It’s our last year. We want to make it a good one,” added Lerner.
Photo of Mueller, Berardi, Bauer, Lerner, and Donahue was taken by Allen Paul/Cheshire Herald.