Mustangs hope for title run
But that is the state of the Immaculate High girls soccer team heading into this fall.
The Mustangs were last seen blowing Tourtelotte out of New Britain's Willowbrook Park in the Class S state championship game. A repeat has seemed to be in the cards almost since they lifted the championship trophy in the air.
The optimism is with good reason. Nikki Weiss, just a sophomore, enters this season as one of the best goalies in Connecticut. Nicki Baker, the championship game Most Valuable Player after scoring four goals, is a junior and fully healthy after enduring an injury plagued season. She is an All-State candidate. The Immaculate defense, their backbone, returns intact.
If that didn't seem to be enough, Cassie Barbaresi, All-New England as a sophomore, was slated to be back into the fold. The possibilities seemed to be endless.
Then the summer took place.
It began when Matt Micros, the architect of the Mustangs roster, resigned as Immaculate athletic director. He said that he didn't the time for teaching, coaching and performing his duties as the Mustangs AD. That was in the middle of July.
He gave some thought to not returning to Immaculate in any capacity, but he decided to return as a part-time teacher and head coach. Two weeks ago, Micros accepted a teaching position at New Milford High. Citing travel issues, Micros then took the girls soccer head coaching job at Brookfield High.
His loss hurt the players because many of the players came to Immaculate because of Micros, who is also one of the best AAU coaches in the state. He was replaced by Nelson Mingachos, his assistant coach for the past three seasons.
Mingachos is the younger brother of Joe Mingachos, the head women's soccer coach at Western Connecticut State University. His style is not all that different from the system that Micros ran.
When Micros left, however, he took Joanna Hutteman with him. Hutteman, a sophomore, came up big last season down the stretch scoring big goals in the postseason. She took the pressure off Baker to carry the load, and she provided solid depth.
Around that same time, Barbaresi transferred to a soccer academy in Florida.
"When we first found out, we felt that we were let down because so many of us came to play for Matt,'' Baker said. "We really want to play Brookfield because we all want to prove that we don't need him to win.''
If Baker sounded frustrated by that statement, it's because she is. Many around the South-West Conference have raised the question as to whether or not Immaculate can win without Barbaresi and Micros.
Truth be told, however, the biggest loss of the three could be Hutteman. She was a proven scorer. Barbaresi, although a great player, was also a high maintenance player. Besides that, Immaculate played most of last season without Barbaresi who went down with a knee injury in a game against Newtown.
"Losing Joanna hurt,'' Baker said. "Because we know that she's a good player, and a player that was going to start for us. Without her we don't have great depth.''
It's that lack of quality depth that could hurt the Mustangs this season. Of the three elite teams in the SWC, Immaculate, Barlow and Masuk, the Mustangs are the most fragile.
And, quite possibly, the most talented.
Baker can put up huge numbers this season. She'll have Nicole Sieber up front with her. Sieber, a junior, had a great postseason last year. She scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win against Newtown in an SWC semifinal. She also came up with the lone goal against Old Lyme in the Class S state tournament.
"Nicole Sieber came up big for us last season,'' Mingachos said. "It's because of players like her that we can lift the bar so high. Even without Matt here, the goals are the same. We want to win the SWC and we want to do well in the state tournament. Nothing's changed now that Matt left. We want to have success today, and we want to continue to do so in the future.''
Those goals drive the Immaculate players. They know what they want and they know they have to continue to work hard to achieve those goals.
"It definitely makes us work harder,'' Weiss said. "Last season we got to the finals and we lost. This year everyone finally wants to win the conference.''
Last season, when Immaculate was hit with a ton of injuries, the Mustangs were able to keep winning because of their defense. That constant should be no different this season. Amanda Genova is one of the best sweepers in the conference. Bre Anderson (right back), and Liz Robson (left back) should also contribute. They know that Weiss is backing them up, ready to erase any mistakes with a headlong dive.
"Amanda is amazing,'' Weiss said. "She makes me look good. We have a great defense. I think we proved that last year.''
Coaches around the area are very impressed with the talent the Mustangs return.
"Even without Cassie and Joanna, Immaculate has as good a starting lineup as there is in the state,'' Ridgefield coach Robb Banyai said. "Nelson has to worry about injuries. If they have a significant injury, they might be in trouble.''
A challenging early schedule doesn't make things any easier. The Mustangs open with Cheshire, the preseason consensus top team in the state. They then travel to Barlow next Saturday for an early season showdown. They follow those two games with Lauralton Hall and Newtown.
"We could be 1-3 and playing great,'' Mingachos said.
His players sing a different tune.
"We knew what the schedule was from the first day of practice,'' Baker said. "Playing these teams is a huge challenge. We've been trying to prepare ourselves for a month. When we get tired, that's what we think about. We can't wait to get started.''