Few people — very few people — in sports walk away from the game on top. Mat Litchhult is one of them.
Way back in 2002, during one of his first practices as the new coach of the Mattituck High School boys soccer team, Litchhult had expressed concern as to whether he was up to the task set before him.
Litchhult was a standout player for the Tuckers before going on to succeed the man who coached him, Joe Vasile-Cozzo. Vasile-Cozzo’s nine-year run in charge of the team came to an end when he accepted a position as the Center Moriches athletic director.
And so began Litchhult’s introduction to coaching.
“It’s a whole different ballgame from when you play on the team,” he said during the 2002 preseason. “Now it’s your program. It was a little intimidating at first, but you have to get over that real fast.”
And he sure did. A year later Litchhult’s Tuckers were New York State Class C champions.
Fast forward to 2014. The Tuckers, loaded with seniors and talent, had all the right ingredients for a winning mix. Returning essentially the same team they had the year before, big things were expected of the Tuckers, who expected even bigger things from themselves.
Under Litchhult’s guiding hand, the pieces were put in place for a memorable season. The Tuckers did not disappoint, rising to the top for their third state championship, the second under Litchhult, The Suffolk Times’ first-ever Sports Person of the Year. Litchhult called it “pure joy.”
With two goals by Kaan Ilgin and another goal by Kevin Williams, the Tuckers downed Beekmantown of Plattsburgh, 3-0, in the state Class B final at Middletown High School’s Faller Field, capping a 19-2 season.
Two days after that crowning achievement, Litchhult made the stunning announcement that he was stepping down as Mattituck’s coach at the age of 37 in order to spend more time with his family. Litchhult and his wife have three children; the youngest was born last September.
Describing the decision as “extremely difficult,” Litchhult made the announcement to the team at its annual wall-signing ceremony and then later at a team dinner.
“It was jaw-dropping,” said Williams.
Litchhult told The Suffolk Times: “My heart was telling me no, but in the end I think my brain was telling me it was the right move. You never know if you’re making the right decision. I know I have a lot of support. My wife supports what I do. My family supports what I do. But in the end, I think that in order to be what I consider to be a good dad, I would like to do it for 12 months of the year.”
He added, “I only know how to do the job one way, which is all in for as hard as I can and focus on the team.”
Litchhult was only the sixth coach Mattituck has had since the school started playing soccer in 1936. His predecessors were Vasile-Cozzo, Mike Huey, Craig Osmer, Frank Grabowski and Robert Muir, who Mattituck’s athletic fields are named after.
Over the course of Litchhult’s 12 years coaching the team, the Tuckers went 181-50-14 for a heady .739 winning percentage.
“His record speaks for itself as far as wins and losses,” said Mattituck’s athletic director, Gregg Wormuth.
With fine talents such as Ilgin (20 goals, 12 assists), Mario Arreola (15 goals, 8 assists), Paul Hayes and Williams, Litchhult had tools to construct a championship season. “This is a special group of guys,” he said. Along their playoff path, the Tuckers defeated Southampton, Center Moriches, Wheatley, Rye Neck, Skaneateles and, finally, Beekmantown. Litchhult’s coaching wisdom helped pave the way.
It was a hunch by Litchhult that helped send the Tuckers on the winning path in their county final against Center Moriches. On a rainy, windy, cold afternoon at Diamond in the Pines in Coram, Litchhult saw the ball skipping on the field turf so he made a suggestion to his star player, Ilgin. With the wind at Mattituck’s back in the second half, Litchhult gave Ilgin the green light to fire on goal from 30 yards out. Ilgin’s eyes must have lit up. The senior striker obliged, drilling a 30-yarder in to break a scoreless tie before adding another goal for a 2-0 win, making Mattituck the first Suffolk team to win five consecutive county titles.
“These guys made history,” said Litchhult.
Litchhult made some interesting off-the-field decisions before the state semifinal against Skaneateles. Instead of attending a state banquet the night before the game, he took the Tuckers to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.
“Litch wanted us to stay away from Skaneateles, just wanted to keep our heads away from them,” Hayes said. “There were some Twitter battles. It was a smart call.”
The morning before the game, in order to keep his players separated from the Skaneateles players who were in the same hotel, Litchhult had bagels, bananas, water and Gatorade brought in for breakfast for the players to eat in their rooms.
The Tuckers then went on to turn in their most dominating performance of the season, a 6-0 dismantling of Skaneateles. The one-sided match allowed Litchhult to rest players for the final the following day.
Following the triumph over Beekmantown, Litchhult declared, “This is the best team that has ever come through Mattituck.”
After all the games were played, the awards started flooding in. Ilgin was named an all-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the state player of the year and the Suffolk small schools player of the year. In addition, he was named to the Class B all-state team along with Hayes and Williams. For the second year in a row, Litchhult was selected as Suffolk’s small schools coach of the year.
Ilgin completed his Mattituck career tied for 27th on the all-time county list with 51 goals. That places him second on Mattituck’s all-time goal-scoring list behind Kevin Litchhult, Mat’s younger brother, who netted 71 goals between 1996 and 2000.
Ilgin had verbally committed to play for the University of Albany, but later de-committed, stating his intention to pursue a career as a professional soccer player.
Litchhult has made a lasting impact.
“When everyone thinks of Mattituck soccer, the first thing they think of with boys soccer is how well we’ve done in the past and the person who has done it is Mr. Litchhult,” said Williams.
After all the excitement over the dream season subsided, Litchhult took a moment to reflect on the experience.
“I still think it is just an amazing way for the whole thing to end,” he said. “Each year was kind of like a different chapter in the book. If you made a movie about it you wouldn’t believe the ending.”
With Michael Lewis