This fall will mark athletic anniversaries for Naugatuck High School and Woodland Regional High School. The Citizen’s News will take a look back at three of those moments starting this week with the Naugatuck boys soccer team winning its first state title in 2001. This fall is the 15th anniversary of the title run.
NAUGATUCK — After surviving a grueling regular season and then making it through the daunting task of the playoffs, it’s often one spectacular play that decides a championship.
In 2001, the Naugatuck boys soccer team saw that scenario unfold. Then-senior co-captain Brian Mariano unleashed the game-deciding play at Willowbrook Park in New Britain, and the Greyhounds won their first boys soccer state championship in school history with a 3-2 victory over Westhill in the Class LL state final.
How spectacular was the play? It earned Mariano a nomination for an ESPY Award, complete with chauffeur-driven limousines and the best that Hollywood, Calif., could offer.
As fate would have it, Mariano told his former head coach Art Nunes after the first conditioning practice that summer that they were going to win a state championship with this team.
The coach shrugged his shoulders and passed it off as youthful optimism. Little did anyone know at the time Mariano just predicted things to come for the Greyhounds.
Naugatuck finished that year 19-1-1 and won its fourth straight Naugatuck Valley League title. The team was stacked with All-American and senior co-captain B.J. Kochis (29 goals), who took home MVP honors in the state tournament, All-State and All-New England Mariano, goalkeeper Jason Crisp, Matt Jannitto, All-NVL Fabian Rodriguez, All-NVL Jamie Pereira, Julio Garcia, Rich Reddington and Kevin Golebieski to name a few.
“The key to that team was the cohesiveness,” said Nunes, who celebrated the first state championship in boys soccer with assistant coaches Mark Callahan, Mike LeGates, Art Carreira and Manny Oliveira and assistant athletic director Jack Tavares. “This was one of the tightest knit units I ever coached. We made the semifinals two years before that so we were ready to take it to the next step. But not only do you need talent and skill you need to have some luck on your side.”
Naugatuck got a little luck when Fabian Rodriguez scored the winning goal with one second left in overtime to defeat Guilford, 2-1, in the Class LL semifinals to send the Greyhounds to the title game.
“We made a name for ourselves in the NVL and the surrounding area by then, but the state championship was usually won by an FCIAC team,” Nunes said. “Everything needed to fall into place. I was on the state coaches’ board back then and asked some of the coaches with .700 career winning percentages what to expect in the state championship game. They said they didn’t know because they never got there. That’s how tough it is to win it all.”
Naugatuck was seeded fourth and needed five wins to pull off the championship feat. A 2-0 win over Notre Dame of West Haven got the Greyhounds on the right track in the opening round. They followed that up with a rather easy 7-1 win over Ridgefield.
That’s when it started to get tough and a little bit of luck came their way. With 2-1 victories over South Windsor in the quarterfinals and Guilford in the semifinals, the championship meeting with the Vikings of Westhill was set.
With goals from Kochis and Julio Garcia, Naugatuck was tied 2-2 with Westhill with 22 minutes to go in the final.
Then came the play that championships are made of. Mariano, who predicted back in August that the team would win it all, delivered on his prediction.
On an inbounds that left fans and players alike in awe, Mariano set the ball on the turf and literally did a handstand on the ball flipping upright and firing it 40 yards towards the Westhill goal.
Jannitto ran interference out in front of the net and temporarily blocked the sight of Vikings goalkeeper Dave Faugno. When Faugno finally tracked down the ball he reached up to punch it out of harm’s way but the ball slid off his fingertips into the back of the net for a 3-2 Naugatuck lead.
“I actually thought it was going to go over the goal. We had a teacher in school who had connections to ESPN and they got a hold of the video. I guess that was my 15 minutes of fame,” said Mariano about the goal and how it caught the eye of ESPN.
There was still 21 minutes to play, and as the minutes ticked away the anticipation grew to a fevered pitch. Then the final minute appeared on the clock and the Naugy fans began the countdown. When the clock struck zero the fans stormed the field knocking down the fence in one of the most celebratory occasions in school history.
“It was totally first class going to Hollywood, it was so surreal. But winning the state championship is something I will never forget,” Mariano said. “So many things have to go your way. Getting in the right bracket. Having the ball bounce your way. But we would have never got there without Art Nunes.
“He doesn’t just know how to coach soccer. He knows how to use everyone’s skill set and get the most out of every player to make the team a success. He just had that field vision to know where everyone needed to be to be successful. But I remember telling him before the season started that we would win the state championship and we did. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Greyhounds went on to repeat as state champs in 2002. To put in perspective how difficult of a task winning a state title is, the 2002 championship marked the last time Naugatuck played for a boys soccer state championship.