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Girls Soccer: Hope for soccer merger to pay dividends

Head coach Chris Golden surveyed the 45 young women training on the new Southold High School turf soccer field on Monday. They were the midst of their second practice of a unique merger. He said the first day of the transition that combined the Mattituck and Southold/Greenport teams was “great, perfect.”

“I always say a glass is never half-empty,” he added. “It’s always full. I can’t ask for a better start to the preseason.”

In many ways, Golden is the perfect coach to tackle this daunting task. The Greenport athletic director accentuates the positive; his Porters boys soccer teams won several Suffolk County sportsmanship awards. He also directed the Southold girls into the Class C state semifinals.

Due to declining enrollment and fewer players on the teams — which also meant no junior varsity squads — the schools’ athletic directors agreed to combine the two programs to give players a chance to develop and play.

“Without a JV, without those building blocks, you lose kids to other sports or they just lose interest, in this case, soccer,” Golden said.

Players understood the merger wasn’t just for this season but for the future.

“Any time you’re going into a different situation, it’s kind of interesting, especially being rivals with Southold,” said defender Amber Rochon, a Mattituck senior. “That was kind of an apprehension to just see how we’d blend because we never played with each other before. But I think for the younger kids it’s great for them coming up so in the future years, they’ll know how to play with these other girls.”

To make players feel at home, Golden scheduled morning practices at Mattituck and afternoon sessions in Southold. The home schedule calls for three matches at Southold and two apiece at Mattituck and Greenport.

“That’s critical for both soccer communities, that they felt they were both part of this merger,” he said. “Everyone has to feel that they have an equal or a good say in this. Otherwise, I feel it won’t succeed.”

It was only the first day, but the transition was smooth.

“There’s no drama, no issues,” said senior Jillian Golden, whose 33 goals for Southold led all Long Island goal scorers last season. “All the girls just seem to have a love for soccer, which is great. We all bond over that. It was easier than everybody thought it was going to be.”

For some players, it was back to work as usual.

“The first day is always tough,” said goalkeeper Sarah Santacroce, a Mattituck junior. “It’s hell week. First time coming back it’s like a slap in the face for everyone. We are looking good. I like the way the team looks a lot.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that several players had performed together on the Mattituck/Southold/Greenport girls lacrosse team that captured the state title Class D earlier this year.

“I played last year with some of the girls so I already knew some of them,” said Sabrina Basel, a senior at Southold. “It makes it a lot easier.”

Said Mattituck senior defender Lauren Zuhoski, another member of the lacrosse team: “We’re all friendly with each other. No bad blood between us.”

Soccer players got a bit of a head start as the schools fielded a team in the Brookhaven Summer League. “So, it feels like we’re already bonding as a team,” Basel added.

The team will be known as MSG, the first letter from each school.

Carolina blue, the University of North Carolina colors, will be team’s jersey’s colors, with a mix of red. The schools’ logos will be on the back of the shirts with MSG in front.

“We tried to take aspects from each school, but the girls really like the Carolina blue across the board,” Golden said.

The team doesn’t have a nickname. “We’re going with MSG,” Golden said. “We threw out some names like United and North Fork but at the end of the day, we didn’t want to rush in. So there’s always time to get that right.”

Preseason training is more than just merging two teams, it’s about preparing to go deep in the season. Golden brought in former Mattituck boys coach Joe Vasile-Cozzo, the East Hampton athletic director, to handle the afternoon session.

“He has a real knowledge of the game,” Golden said. “He’s personable. He works great with the kids.”

Not surprisingly, the players have aspirations of winning titles.

“I want everyone to feel that we’re one team and … more like one family because we’re three different schools,” said junior midfielder Claire Gatz, who collected 14 goals and 11 assists for Mattituck last season. “I want to go to the counties and states. That would really be fun.”

Photo caption: Goalkeeper Sarah Santacroce of the newly merged Mattituck/Southold/Greenport girls soccer team collects a ball during Tuesday afternoon’s practice. (Credit: Garret Meade)