Stonington boys determined to complete state championship quest
Two words in capital letters on the front of Stonington's soccer practice shirts serve as a constant reminder of the Bears' state championship quest.
The Bears are one win away from completing that goal in the program's first title game appearance since 1994.
Top-seeded and undefeated Ellington (19-0) stands in No. 2 Stonington's way in the CIAC Class M final that starts at 10 a.m. Saturday at Dillon Stadium in Hartford.
The Bears (18-0-2) have worn their practice shirts all season. On the back, the date Nov. 23 is circled on a graphic of that month's calendar.
"It's been our own little secret," senior Will Cannella said. "We tried not to publicize them too much on Instagram. We've had a goal since day one, really. Some people might view it as cockiness to have the state final date on the back of our shirt. We really just view it as confidence because we know we're a state championship-caliber team. We knew it wasn't going to easy."
It also helps to have a talented, tight-knit team with a collective purpose and determination, as well as a caring, respected and well-prepared leader in coach Paul deCastro.
Even just playing in a state final seemed like an ambitious goal. The Bears lost 10 seniors from a semifinalist team in 2018.
But they had some young, hungry players eager to play bigger roles and veterans on a mission.
They stormed through the regular season unbeaten and have shut out all four opponents in state tournament play.
"To be honest with you, we have really good players and they bought into what we're trying to do," deCastro said. "It's never about anybody. They get it. It's the team first."
Stonington is playing its best soccer at the perfect time.
The Bears are coming off an impressive 4-0 semifinal win over defending champion Plainville (the Blue Devils eliminated Stoninton last fall).
"We're definitely in good form, if you look at our last couple of results," Cannella said. "Honestly, it's the belief that we have that this year is different, this is our year. We were talking about it on the bus ride (Tuesday), it felt different than last year.
"We've been there before. We're experienced, we're battle tested. So we're not as nervous and we're not as tight. Last year, we were getting experience. This year, we're here to win."
Stonington has a playoff history with Ellington, which blanked Ledyard 3-0 in the semifinals. Hosting a quarterfinal game in 2017, the Bears saw their season end in heartbreaking fashion, losing to the Knights on penalty kicks.
The two teams are familiar with each other, having scrimmaged during the summer. Ellington, last year's state runnerup, has it all — size, speed, skill and experience.
The Bears are ready for the challenge.
"We have a good team," deCastro said. "I think the question is now can we finish it. ... They're not nervous. We're going to play loose and free. Whatever happens, happens. But I 'd be surprised if we don't fight and play well."
A 1993 Stonington graduate, deCastro experienced his share of success as a high school player. But he never won a state title. He's thrilled and a bit envious that his players are getting a chance to play on the big stage.
"I felt a little guilty creating a shirt like this," senior Tyler Fidrych said. "It was a little ambitious. At the end of the day, we really thought it could be our turn. And we put ourselves in a great position for it to be."
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