After decades as a player and a coach, it never gets old. November means state tournament time. For everyone connected with high school soccer, it’s the best part of the year.
The regular season is done. After 16 matches, the haves have separated from the have-nots. A draw here, a last-second win or loss there, spells the difference between one, two or even
more spots in the rankings. That difference translates into a home or away match; a “good” or “bad” draw -- but it doesn’t really matter. In the state tournament, every team starts 0-0- 0.
Upsets are the rule rather than the exception. To be a state champion, you have to win your
last match of the season. And that one is always on the road.
In recent years, a longtime ritual -- the announcement of the seedings and matchups -- has changed. For years on the first Friday in November, coaches drove to the CIAC office in Cheshire to pick up tournament packets. They’d race home to tell their teams, then prepare for Game #1.
Now it’s all online -- even the “random number generator” that solves ties. Coaches know long before the official announcement who’s drawn whom. A bit of the thrill is gone. But now -- even more than ever -- there’s excitement once the tournament begins. Websites, social media and the growth of the game have turned the state tournament into a huge spectacle.
Trees shed leaves, air gets cold, night arrives early -- and the tournament races on. Thirty-two teams begin their quest. Within two days, that number has been halved; 48 hours later, it’s halved again.
Almost as quickly, eight teams become four. Most teams have collected uniforms; only a select few remain. At this point of the season, there’s little coaching to be done. Players know what they have to do, and how to do it. All a coach can do is minimize distractions, and make sure the bus arrives on time. That’s how it should be. Soccer is, after all, a player’s game.
Soon enough, the finals are here. With luck, the championship is played in brilliant fall weather. It’s New England at its best. But soccer coaches know that luck is fickle. Finals have been played in gusty winds, frigid temperatures, rain, even snow.
When it’s over -- and even with overtime, a match flies by -- Connecticut crowns four state champions. Some are new; others defended their titles successfully. Winners hoist trophies, take victory laps, pose for photos. Runners-up watch with shock, disappointment, jealousy and/or tears. Their coach consoles them, but nothing he says can ease the pain.
Until a few days later. The team that lost realizes they’ve accomplished a hell of a lot. The team that won still feels on top of the world. But it’s time for them to hand in their jerseys too. And all across Connecticut, coaches and players set their sights on the next state tournament.