Branford Hornets' Boys' Soccer Had Landmark Campaign by Reaching State Semis
The Branford boys' soccer squad recently put together its best season in program history, one in which Paul Hunter's team not only rebounded from a slow start to earn a share of the SCC Oronoque title, but then embarked on a postseason run that saw the Hornets earn three one-goal victories in state tournament play en route to the Class L semifinals.
Branford's run began after squandering a two-goal halftime lead and taking a 3-2 loss to Career/Hillhouse, a defeat which Hunter called the campaign's turning point as the Hornets had a heart-to-heart talk which motivated the team's athletes and propelled them to a spectacular home stretch. In that stretch, Branford avenged a prior loss to North Haven by beating the Indians 2-0, followed by a 1-1 tie at Hand and then a 2-1 victory at Guilford on that team's Senior Night. This set the stage for Branford's march through the Class L bracket, which featured a 1-0 win against Career/Hillhouse, a 2-1 triumph versus East Lyme that was decided in penalty kicks, and then a 1-0 win versus Berlin to send the Hornets to the state semifinals for the first time in program history.
"It was an exciting year and I was happy to see us pick up momentum as the season went on and finish with so much success," said Coach Hunter, whose team dropped a 2-0 contest to Avon in the semis and finish at 10-8-2. "Hopefully, the fact that we won some postseason games this year will send a message to the younger kids in town that the soccer team is a good place to be."
Hunter said that one of the primary factors behind his team's success was the leadership of his senior captain trio of goalie Jeff Grande, central-defender Conor Daley, and forward Will Pottenger, each who earned All-Oronoque honors with Pottenger also gaining All-State distinction, as well as New Haven Register All-Area honors with Daley.
After allowing 13 goals in Branford's first five games, Grande proved tough to get one past the rest of the way as he surrendered just 17 in Branford's final 15 contests for a goals-against average of 2.00 en route to also winning the Hornets' Most Improved Player Award with Hunter calling him "one of the best goalies in the SCC this year." Pottenger tallied 10 goals and four assists despite missing the early portion of the campaign and also notched the lone goal in the playoff win against Career/Hillhouse, plus a proper goal in the East Lyme win, along with another score in penalty kicks. Pottenger was consequently named the Hornets' co-Most Valuable Player with Daley, who proved a dominating force at the sweeper's position and also was presented with the Phil Svitek Hustle Award.
"Conor is an excellent communicator and the type of kid who will run through a wall for you," said Hunter, who completed his third year as head coach with assistance from JV Coach Mark Harris and Bob Faulkner. "Will gave our offense a spark when we needed it and had a fabulous year by scoring a good amount of goals for only playing half the season."
Branford also presented a Most Promising Underclassmen Award to freshman outside-midfielder Joe Roca, who Hunter said "is a pit bull who has good speed and never gives up."
Branford also had three other athletes in its senior class in striker Brian Castellon (who scored the lone goal in the playoff win against Berlin and converted a PK versus East Lyme), outside-defender Jake O'Connor, and central-defender Will Elaawar.
The captains for next year will be Bradshaw, Hobbs (who assisted Castellon's goal against Berlin), central-midfielder Uli Pino (who notched a PK against East Lyme), and midfielder/defender John Ainson. Other key juniors were Will Radulski, midfielder Paul Habelow (who scored a PK versus East Lyme), outside-defender Nick Reed, and midfielder/defender Edgar Ortiz. The Hornets' sophomore class was led by Waters, midfielder Andrew Malonis, striker Rob Giammattei, and outside-defender Evan Buckman with freshmen Roca, Mike Caminear (outside-midfielder), and Jack Pottenger (midfielder) also contributing as freshmen.
Branford also received a great deal of support from senior Ben Backes, who played forward for the Hornets before suffering an injury earlier this year that left him paralyzed from the chest down. However, that didn't stop Backes from attending a handful of Branford's practices and games as he was right there on the sidelines to offer encouragement to his teammates throughout the season.
"Ben was a big moral support for the kids and having him around meant a lot to the players and the coaches," Hunter said. "And even when he wasn't actually there, Ben was still in everyone's mind and spirit."