STAMFORD — The words and actions coming from the coach and players on the Danbury boys soccer team have been on point the past week.
Turn the page.
A new chapter.
“To be honest it was just a matter of waiting to get back out,” said Hatters coach Antony Howard. “For me last year is what it is. It’s over now. We haven’t spoken about it and the boys, we are just trying to get on and trying to do a job this year. It really has not been on our minds. We have a job to do and we want to focus on having a really good year.”
Still, there will always be two of life’s most nagging words following the Hatters like a shadow.
Last Nov. 19, Danbury was supposed to play in the Class LL championship. It was riding a wonderful postseason wave, with a win over unbeaten Trumbull in the quarterfinals and a 4-2 decision over Shelton in the semifinals. A city once accustomed to long state tournament runs was braced for their Hatters’ first final appearance since 1998.
Danbury never got to play. On the eve of the game against Farmington, the team learned it would have to forfeit the win over Shelton because of the use of an illegal player. The infraction was due to a misunderstanding on compliance with the closing of grades for the quarter.
“I was in 6th period class,” said midfielder Felipe Alves, seemingly still haunted by the where-were you-when…. moment. “It was pretty difficult. I found out in a group chat.”
The Hatters’ fate was never decided on the field. Worse, per CIAC rules Shelton got to play in the final and lost to Farmington, 3-0.
“Oh it hurt. It hurt a lot,” Howard said. “And it hurt the community a lot, I can tell you that. It was a tough, tough pill to swallow. It was something I never had to deal with in my long coaching career. It makes you stronger. I think it has made the school a little stronger, it has made our kids a little mentally tougher. Hopefully we can come back stronger.”
Nearly 10 months later than expected, the Hatters get to play their next game, Friday’s season opener at New Canaan. Seven starters from a year ago and six other seniors have graduated. Despite the turnover, the team is expected to be a contender again. It may be latent, but there is additional motivation.
“To be honest it was just a matter of waiting to get back out. For me last year is what it is. It’s over now. We haven’t spoken about it and the boys, we are just trying to get on and trying to do a job this year. It really has not been on our minds. We have a job to do and we want to focus on having a really good year.”
— Danbury coach Antony Howard
“We did lose a lot of good people but we have good depth on the squad this year and we have good players stepping up and filling the roles we need them to,” Alves said. “We are playing as a team. It was pretty hard to take in but as a junior I knew I had one more year to work hard and finish what happened last year. Hopefully bring the title back.”
Howard has made all the right moves. Last year was just the second time since 2008 that the conference did not have a team in the LL final. Howard sent a letter to the 16 other FCIAC coaches apologizing if the situation caused any embarrassment.
“We know what happened and we know the truth of it,” Howard said. “I apologized to everybody because I felt I had to. No matter what the actual story was, we got disqualified and that does look bad on us and it does look bad on the team, but there is nothing that I would have done differently. People know the real story. They feel for us and that’s the bottom line.”
Howard said there is no reason for an us-against-them mentality. It is time to regroup and make another run at postseason titles in a sport that has been on an upswing for a school that was in the state final seven times from 1987-98.
The Hatters will play this season to get back to where they felt they should have been last fall. And they will play for 13 teammates who will never get that second chance.
“My motivation when I came to Danbury was to try and make this a top program and win some things,” Howard said. “It could have happened last year but it didn’t. Certainly when it does happen — if it does happen — the former players are who it is going to be dedicated to because they deserve it.”