The numbers that Sal Penta posted in his 13 years as Southington High girls soccer coach were superb.
A major reason for his departure — to spend more time with his family — is a basic desire that is well understood.
But in spite of his success and rudimentary yearning for increased interaction with his wife and three daughters, Penta’s enduring legacy is the young lives he’s touched.
“He’s always been a consummate, passionate professional,” Southington athletic director Eric Swallow said Tuesday. “Above and beyond the hours he put in, he made a commitment to me, the athletic department as well as the soccer community. He did a tremendous amount in the community.”
Penta won four division titles, qualified for the states 11 times and shared a Class LL championship while compiling a 140-66-24 record.
The state championship came in 2002 when a group led by the three Laurens — Lattanzio, Forgione and Dziedzic — amassed a 17-0-3 record that ended with a scoreless tie in the final against Fairfield on November 19 at Willow Brook Park in New Britain.
“That’s what you remember,” Penta said, also citing a 1-0 Class LL quarterfinal victory over Simsbury in 2006 among his fondest memories. “And even some of the years when our record wasn’t so good to see the girls scrap to get into the tournament. It seems like every year I had a good memory no matter what the results.”
He also had praise for the players who supplemented the Laurens.
“The year of the state championship it was Megan Fuller in the back and Stephanie Kowalec in goal,” he said. “The support players would do it. From midfield to forward to defense, those girls could play and they all played for each other. It didn’t matter who scored.”
He also mentioned the 2006 team that benefited from senior Jess Giannotti meshing with sophomores Annie Freer and Shauna Edwards to help produce a 15-4-1 record and a joy ride to the semifinals.
Three division championships came in the CCC South in Penta’s first three seasons. The last was in 2007 when the Blue Knights had moved to the North in the CCC’s effort to place its largest schools under one banner.
The winning diminished in recent years. He blames it on deteriorating communication in his relationship with the players and their on-field relationship with themselves. That factor also weighed heavily on his decision to step down.
“There was no Twitter or Facebook [in the early 2000s] and now that’s on kids’ minds all the time,” he said. “It’s part of their lifestyle. I see it more and more and it’s not for the better, I don’t think, especially in the game of soccer. The verbal communication is so much less and soccer needs constant communication. They have a hard time doing it. You see it on the field. Every coach I talk to says the same thing.”
The communication issue became an even greater barricade last fall when the Knights compiled a 5-9-3 record, qualifying for the tournament but losing to Northwest Catholic 7-0 in the first round.
“Midway through the season it became apparent that I wasn’t getting to the girls as much as I did, but even more prevalent was that my aspirations and my expectations were higher than the girls’. It caused lot of frustration and it showed. It wasn’t fair to the girls. There comes a time when a new voice and energy level are needed and it seemed time to make the change.”
Swallow has settled on a new coach but cannot make it official until the school board provides its approval.
Penta, 47, said that the Southington program stopped progressing as girls soccer proliferated into every corner of the state.
“The landscape has changed. You see really good soccer no matter where you are,” he said.
“We were ahead of the curve. Now everybody’s caught up. Mediocrity has become an accepted practice in Southington and it’s been difficult for me to overcome. It’s not popular to say, but I think that’s how it is here. I hope as time goes on everybody sits down at a table, puts ego aside, puts their heads together and gets Southington boys and girls soccer back to where it was.”
Penta said he will be coaching at the premier level with the Connecticut Football Club.
“I like the more competitive nature there,” he said. “I want to work with kids who want to play at the highest level.
“I heard [Duke University men’s basketball coach Mike] Krzyzewski talk about the differences in players from years ago. One was verbal communication. Second was the lack of ability to respond to a challenge. We don’t challenge them. We give everybody trophies and then they don’t know how to meet challenges. Only the special kids want to be challenged. It’s a sign of the times.”
He said what he’ll miss most is the people surrounding the high school game — the players, coaches, parents, referees and media.
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