Southington High girls soccer coach Sal Penta has coached teams that range across the spectrum from the accomplished to the inexperienced.
Through 11 seasons, he’s had sides with state championship expectations, some with the stuff to win the CCC West and a few like last year that fell short of postseason aspirations.
So when Penta said he truly believed at halftime, trailing by a goal, that the Blue Knights would defeat Platt, it was beyond mere bluster.
Junior forward Sarah Palko made Penta sound prophetic.
Palko scored two goals within 15 minutes when play resumed Tuesday, Sept. 13, to give Southington a season-opening 2-1 win over Platt in a CCC crossover match on the new turf at Fontana Field.
“The team I saw in practice this past week wasn’t the team that came out today,” Penta said. “[Opening day] nerves and the physicality of play made us initially step back, but as the first half progressed we started to get control. I knew the second half we’d get the first goal and control it from then on.”
Faced with making the adjustment to turf, Penta wanted the Knights to have a fitness advantage.
“The biggest thing I said about this team is the fitness level and it showed today,” he said. “It seemed like [Platt] fatigued as the second half went on. I have a roster with 16, 17 and we used them all.”
Palko was the focal point. With the four-minute mark of the second half approaching, she broke ahead of the Platt defense and blasted it through the fingertips of diving goalkeeper Marquia Grundy.
“It was a good ball from [Amanda Thompson],” Palko said. “We’re trying to learn how to build through the midfield and she put a perfect ball through. It was basically put on a silver platter. I had to finish it.”
The game-winner came in the 59th minute. Moments earlier, Palko hooked a shot over the right corner of the net. Given a second chance, she placed it perfectly.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of tying and going to overtime,” she said.
Platt turned in a strong first half. Grundy played well in goal, Jess Peach dominated from her central back slot, Jessica Kulbeck possessed effectively in the midfield and Rachel Leaverton provided the offense.
In the 12th minute, Leaverton settled a through ball from Hayley Dudley and her offensive instincts took over.
“When I got the ball from Hayley I took it in and knew I had the [defender] off balance, so I just cut it into my left foot,” she said. “It felt natural from there. I kind of swung through and it found its way to the net.”
Platt had several other chances trickle away, most notably two shots when Southington keeper Jenelle Mangassarian stuffed a break and the rebound rolled wide left.
Panthers’ first-year coach Nick Dionne saw plenty of promise.
“They came out a lot harder than we did in the second half and we got the wind blown out of our sails,” said Dionne, a Platt graduate making his head coaching debut after assisting at Oxford last year. “But we’ve got a good core group and hopefully, as the season goes on, we’ll build it up.
“We have to work on our organization. There were a lot of holes and they were finding the ball in those holes. We’ve got to tighten it up.”
Near the top of Penta’s list is refining the turf game.
“We’re still getting used to the pace,” he said. “We like to play fast, but sometimes that ball is going a little faster than we’re used to on the grass. As we practice more on the turf, we’ll get used to it, but I think it was a factor in the game.”
Margaret Mellitt split time with Mangassarian in goal. Each made two saves. Grundy stopped nine shots for the Panthers.
Southington was outshot 6-4 in the first half, but tipped the scales to 13-9 for the match. The Knights earned three corner kicks to one for Platt.