While a torrential downpour pelted players, coaches and spectators during the second half at Southold High School on Thursday afternoon, interim head coach Lucas Grigonis turned to someone on the sidelines and said, “The weather has been like our season: stormy, slightly wet and uncomfortable.”
Grigonis wasn’t kidding.
The First Settlers have endured much in a season that is barely a month old.
They lost their head coach, Andrew Sadowski, to a freak injury in the preseason. They proceeded to lose their opening five games before rebounding with three wins.
“The team’s mindset has been stronger than what people think,” Grigonis said after a 4-0 triumph over Port Jefferson (1-7, 1-7) in a Suffolk County League VII match. “Even at 0-5 you would never tell that we were down and out. We were getting stronger, getting more fit, focusing on tactics and the system that we’re trying to play, trying to replicate in a performance.”
Southold (3-5, 3-5) has one of the great soccer traditions as a perennial Suffolk Class C contender and champion.
“We knew the quality of the kids in the program,” Grigonis said. “It’s just how you fit all these pieces of the puzzle together. We talk about chemistry a lot, doing our job, our role and position. If we can’t do that ourselves, we’re not going to support each other and thrive.”
The season didn’t start well. During preseason practice, Sadowski, the dean of Suffolk coaches (286 career wins) was struck on the side of his neck by a ball, forcing him to miss his duties as social studies teacher and relegating him to a spectator at games.
“The boys miss him, and it’s been difficult,” said Grigonis, who has been with the program for 10 years.
Midfielder Joe Silvestro realized he and fellow co-captain and goalkeeper Cole Brigham had their work cut out for themselves.
“He really stepped up this year,” Silvestro said of Grigonis. “A lot of the seniors, myself and the captains, we really stepped up to discipline the guys a little bit without the big man there. We try to keep everyone in line, keep everyone positive.”
It certainly didn’t help matters that the First Settlers started with five losses, four on the road. They fell at Suffolk Class B defending champion Center Moriches, 3-1, before dropping a 2-1 home decision to Hampton Bays. A 3-0 defeat at Mattituck followed, then a 5-2 setback at Babylon and a 7-0 loss at Southampton.
“We always just kept positive and tried to work on what we had control over, certain things that we could work on,” Silvestro said. “We had individual goals. We would meet those in those games. Even though we lost, we’re still meeting our goals and doing our best.”
Life started to turn around on Sept. 20 when Southold edged Greenport, 3-2, before a 1-0 win over Class C rival Pierson/Bridgehampton.
“Now it gives us a high ceiling,” Silvestro said. “We know what we’re capable of, so, we know how far we can go. We know our weaknesses; we know our strengths.”
On Thursday, the Settlers played to their strengths and took advantage of the southern wind behind their backs to grab a 2-0 halftime lead. Midfielder Daniel Palencia gave Southold all the scoring it needed, firing home a Calvin Karsten feed at 23 minutes and 37 seconds.
Only seconds after Grigonis said, “I don’t think we’ve scored off a corner kick in four years,” the Settlers did just that. Jaishaun McRae sent his set piece in before it was cleared back to him. McRae fed Matthew Schill, who put it past goalkeeper Jonathan Balfoort (12 saves) at 38:15.
Just as the second half began, a monsoon began.
“Oh my God. When I got out there I couldn’t see anything,” said Silvestro, who assisted on the third goal. “I turned around to face the ball and I was just getting pelted with rain. It was hard to keep your mindset right.”
It didn’t hinder the hosts’ scoring prowess as Elmer Deleon and Alex Merino tallied at 47:46 and 61:50, respectively.
So, just how far can the Settlers go?
“Our goal that we set is to win the county final,” Silvestro said. “It’s been three years in a row for me. I think we can go further than that.”
Photo caption: Joe Silvestro (4) and Daniel Palencia (5) congratulate Elmer Deleon after his second-half goal for Southold against Port Jefferson. (Credit: Daniel De Mato)