By Paul Augeri
When Mike Shea interviewed at Haddam-Killingworth earlier this year, his future soccer team captains, Ashley Duncanson and Kaitlyn Parri, were among the many people in the room that day.
“(Parri) said to me, ‘We just want to let you know we don’t win many games, but we’re a tight-knit group. We’re like a family.’ ”
Shea said he liked hearing that a team-oriented foundation already was in place.
“I thought that was a step in the right direction,” he said. “I did tell her, I hope you guys like winning more than you have been winning. And their faces lit up.”
The Cougars’ 2019 season could not have gone better. They won 11 regular-season games – an increase of seven from the previous year. They upset No. 2 seed Old Lyme in the semifinals of the Shoreline Conference tournament, and they hung on to defeat Valley Regional 3-2 for the championship.
The Cougars are 14-4-1 overall and seeded 11th as they begin play in the CIAC Class M tournament with a first-round game at home Tuesday against No. 22 Waterford. And they still might the underdog they were back in August.
“We probably were looked upon as underdogs at the beginning of this season and I think we have that sense that we’re back in that spot again going into states,” Shea said. “We feel like people still look at us as a program that hasn’t won.
“More or less, we’ve built a reputation already in this one season of who we could be, and we did that in the Shoreline tournament. And now we’ll try to do that at the states.”
H-K has not won a state title. The program got close in 2013, losing in the Class M final (to Waterford, no less). If they beat the Lancers in the first round, they might have to contend with defending Class M champion Lewis Mills in Round 2.
And yet there probably weren’t many who thought H-K was going to beat Old Lyme, winner of the last four Class S titles, in the Shoreline tournament.
H-K won two of its first four matches, with Shea saying there was a “good vibe” to the team at that time. The two losses came on the road to Coginchaug, 2-0, and Portland, 2-1. The Highlanders would go on to finish as the Shoreline’s regular-season champion.
Shea said if H-K had a second meeting against Portland, he felt the Cougars would have won. Two weeks after losing to Coginchaug, H-K got even with a 4-0 victory. That’s when he sensed the excitement beginning to pick up.
“We could hear comments like, ‘Wow, I think we’re going to win more than last year, I think we’ll go far.’ That’s when they started to believe in themselves,” Shea said. “We definitely had the tools and the skills to compete in the conference, and from there we knew we were in a good spot.”
Before getting the H-K job, Shea volunteered his time as a middle school coach while his children were playing at that age. He later worked at Mercy as the freshman team’s coach, with the larger goal of one day getting the chance to coach soccer at the varsity level.
It has worked out well for Shea, and maybe then some. He will lose only two seniors off of this year’s squad.
“I felt for this team, the tools were always there, it was just guiding them in the right direction and guiding them on the field,” he said. “My expectations going into the job were that we were going to be positive at all times, and if anything negative popped up, we’ll squash it and get back on a positive path and move on. We were going to be positive throughout the season and improve at what we’re doing, with open communication at all times. And it’s worked out very well.”