Camaraderie gives state champion Stonington boys' soccer team an extra level of depth
Stonington — The inside jokes with these guys fly back and forth like ping-pong balls, no one immune.
"Absolutely everything. Forget being the coach's son," said junior Billy deCastro, son of Stonington High School head boys' soccer coach Paul deCastro, asked what, for example, he gets occasionally heckled for. "Anything and everything possible. If I miss a shot. The way I tie my shoe."
"I get to pick on some kids now, but I still get picked on," junior Sam Montalto said. "I have a goofy laugh, apparently. I have a big nose, that's a big one. ... We can be working hard in a drill. We know when it's time to be funny. I think it's a huge part of that chemistry. One second we can be laughing and the next second we're pushing."
The Stonington boys' soccer team combined sheer talent a year ago with camaraderie, turning the combination of the two into a Class M state championship, 1-0 over Ellington. The Bears finished undefeated at 18-0-3, earning a pair of all-state picks in Montalto and UConn recruit Ty Fidrych, then a senior.
But while Paul deCastro is certainly looking forward to Monday, when high school teams are permitted by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference to hold team practices for the first time — the Bears are currently practicing in four separate cohorts or small groups of players — Stonington has found a way to maintain its unity despite having to work around the rules necessitated by COVID-19.
As they have in past years, deCastro's team participated in the Town of Stonington Boys' Soccer Summer Training session, offered by the Stonington Recreation Department.
Organized by rec director Rich Ward, the former head coach of the Stonington boys' team, the summer session featured fitness and conditioning with Diane Macera, yoga with instructor Kristen Ullrich and soccer training with Marc Davis of the Southeast Soccer Club.
The Stonington girls' team also had a summer session, coached by Wheeler High boys' coach Joe Mendonca Sr.
"We've been doing it for a number of years," Ward said of the program. "(The instructors) now claim they're a part of a championship (the boys) won last year, so they have a vested interest to come back. ... I was telling Paul he has a perfect storm going on. These kids want more and more. They're good people (running the program) and the response has been great."
"A great coach. He always gets the best out of us," Montalto said of Davis. "We've been playing together all summer. We've been working hard. We've been playing with coach Davis, trying to connect the upperclassmen to the underclassmen. ... Not a lot of kids have what we have. That's really helped bring us where we are."
Paul deCastro estimates that most of his players took part in the rec program, for which they pay tuition. They mixed in vacations and work commitments, but for the most part when the wakeup call came for 7:30 a.m. yoga on Tuesday mornings, they were there.
That became even more important this year when the coronavirus struck, limiting programs under CIAC jurisdiction (Stonington's did not count since it was run through the rec department and deCastro did not coach) to limited conditioning work.
Billy deCastro said that during the final two weeks of the season last year, Stonington was enjoying more than just a run to a potential state championship.
"In that last stretch, we had our eyes on the prize," Billy deCastro said. "But also it was the last two weeks we had with those seniors. Last year's group was amazing. This year, I think we've got a great environment. I think the Bears will be good again."
Paul deCastro, a Stonington graduate himself, said that he's been known to yell and scream a little if need be. But mainly he believes that with their dedication to the game and their willingness to focus when the situation calls for it, the players have earned the right to silliness once in a while.
"I can have a bad day too," Paul deCastro said. "But I'm willing to be a little more patient. A lot of these guys have earned that respect. ... Come here with a positive mindset. Be positive. Make players around you better.
"The camaraderie they sort of have, they enjoy that."
The coach calls his players "hungry," even though they finished last season with a championship.
That team had two juniors and five sophomores in the starting lineup and those contributors are looking to replicate that success. The Bears will play in the Eastern Connecticut Conference's regional Division I (there will be no divisional titles this year) along with East Lyme, Lyman Memorial, NFA, Fitch, Waterford, Ledyard, Stonington and Bacon Academy.
"We obviously, we might not be playing for a state championship this year," Paul deCastro said. "You've got to step above it. Some of them have goals to play at the next level and to do that you have to be resilient. It's a mindset. If we can play 12 games and some type of postseason tournament, that'll be a good motivation.
"I'm sure there are some teams looking forward to playing us. Division I, to be honest, I don't think there are any teams that are just going to be walkovers."
The Bears are scheduled to begin the season Oct. 1 at Ledyard.
"I definitely think the time we put in this summer helps when you get to the beginning of the season," Stonington senior Ethan Allen said prior to Tuesday's practice. "I definitely think these hard training sessions makes the team bond bigger."
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