The lucky 13 (as in uniform number) in the Mattituck lineup belongs to Nicole Zurawski, not that luck can be attributed to the sort of soccer player that Zurawski has become. Her progress is the result of athleticism, commitment, dedication and hard work, not chance.
Zurawski, a junior sweeper, may be regarded as Mattituck’s best player. In years past, when the Mattituck soccer factory was churning out one player after another and the Tuckers were richly stocked with talent, the team might have had eight, nine or 10 Nicole Zurawskis at a time.
Now, there is only one.
The absence of a club team for girls to play for in Mattituck and a downward trend in program numbers have taken their toll. No longer are the Tuckers as dominating a presence as they once were. One only needs to look to the last school season to see that times have changed. Mattituck barely scratched into the playoffs — something that had been routinely taken for granted — and did not have enough players to carry a junior varsity team.
“It’s sad to say, but I feel like we used to have a solid 11 on the team,” said Veronica Stelzer, a former player for the Tuckers (Class of 2011) who coaches Mattituck’s summer league team. “Now we’re getting a solid four or five because there are no travel teams in Mattituck any more so they don’t have the chance to play together. And everybody’s putting 110 percent on the field, but they only play in the fall.”
But the Tuckers do have Nicole Zurawski, and for that they are thankful.
Stelzer was a high school senior when Zurawski was brought onto the varsity team as an eighth-grader.
“She’s amazing,” Stelzer said. “She’s my little MVP, and I’m always telling her to keep her head up because it’s hard to be the sweeper and have all the pressure on you, but I’m so proud of her. She’s just awesome.”
Still, these are trying times for the Tuckers. Aside from Zurawski, the only other two Mattituck players who play club ball are juniors Abby Graeb and Courtney Murphy.
With a few other exceptions, such as Kyle Freudenberg, Kellie Stepnoski and Isabel Torgrove, there isn’t a whole lot of experience to draw from. Even some players who were on the school team last year didn’t get much playing time. For instance, Val Hommel, a senior goalkeeper, didn’t play in a single game.
“It’s crazy. We’re just not experienced,” Zurawski said. She added: “It’s definitely sad to see because … Mattituck soccer has always been [competitive]. There’s tryouts to get on the team, and each year there just seems to be less and less girls going out” for the team.
Zurawski was introduced to the varsity scene as an eighth-grader on a senior-laden team. “I learned so much from them,” she said of those seniors. “… Eighth grade, that’s definitely when I blossomed because I had so many people to look to.”
A defender for virtually her entire soccer life, Zurawski was converted to forward as an eighth-grader and played there for part of her freshman season before being moved back to her more familiar sweeper position, which she also plays for Brentwood United’s under-16 team.
“It’s where I’m most comfortable, definitely,” Zurawski said. “It’s a lot of pressure, which I like. I play better under pressure.”
Zurawski takes many of Mattituck’s free kicks. She said her distance and accuracy on free kicks over the past few years has improved dramatically.
Scoring isn’t normally part of a sweeper’s game, but Zurawski did score a goal during the last school season — directly off a corner kick!
But because Zurawski is the last defender playing in front of her, Hommel may appreciate Zurawski’s speed and physical presence more than anything else.
“She’s awesome,” Hommel said. “I can definitely trust her. … If I miss a ball, I know she’s there. She’ll try her best. She’ll go dive for the ball, just like I will. Definitely, Nikki leaves it all out on the field.”
A sign of how much work Mattituck has ahead of it was seen Friday when it was beaten, 5-0, by Center Moriches in a Town of Brookhaven Summer League game that was played in a torrential downpour at the Patchogue-Medford Youth Soccer League Complex. All of the goals were scored in the opening 27 minutes, including two apiece by Emily Fey and Claire Brady. Casey Luongo also scored.
Meghan Ricci made three saves for Center Moriches’ fourth shutout in six games, four of which were wins.
The Red Devils had the game in hand, outshooting Mattituck by 18-8.
Mattituck played shorthanded, starting the game with only nine players. The Tuckers dropped down to eight players late in the first half after Stepnoski came off the field with an injury, and then found themselves with 10 players by the start of the second half after Stepnoski returned to action and the late-arriving Graeb entered the game.
The result left Mattituck’s record at 1-3-2.
Stelzer said the level of play has dropped a couple of notches since she last wore a Mattituck uniform, but she has noticed some positives.
“We have been improving with every game,” she said. “Our first game we were a little rusty; fitness-wise, we weren’t there; teamwork-wise, we didn’t know each other’s names. Now we’re starting to work together, call each other out, be there for each other, be an option, and it’s really looking up.”