Pictured: Coginchaug coach Matt Thompson (in mask and gloves) prepares his players for the second half of Monday’s home match against Portland.

By Paul Augeri

DURHAM – Coginchaug boys soccer coach Matt Thompson could field a starting lineup – and then some – with the number of players unavailable to him in the last two weeks.

Even with strict COVID-19 protocols in place during the pandemic, school communities throughout Connecticut have felt disruption from COVID-19 in some way. Coginchaug’s experience at the moment happens to be a depleted soccer roster.

If there is an unexpected benefit to the Blue Devils’ recent predicament, it is this: Less experienced players have enjoyed the reward of varsity minutes when, in a normal season, they might not have such an opportunity.

In 13 seasons with the program, the last four as varsity coach, Thompson’s mettle hasn’t been tested as it has in 2020.

“I have been trying to keep it light, trying to teach the game,” the coach said Tuesday, the day after Coginchaug lost 4-0 to visiting Portland. “We lost a lot of kids last year. Eleven seniors, and we’re talking all-conference level players. That is a huge talent drop-off to begin with.”

Last regular season, the Blue Devils won 10 games, and then two more in the Class S tournament before a 1-0 loss to Holy Cross in the quarterfinal round.

This year’s team is not THAT team.

“We had a number of athletes come out this year as first-time players, sophomores and juniors and even a couple of seniors who were brand new to the sport,” said Thompson, a former player and 2003 Coginchaug graduate. “I was teaching things like how to do a legal throw-in. I’ve had to scale it back to the foundations of soccer.

“Now there are a lot of players I’ve called up, some who didn’t even have JV experience, and thrown in to a varsity setting, who might not have played in middle school or for a travel team who are still being taught the basics.”

Coginchaug had a 2-3-1 through the midway point of the pandemic-shortened regular season. After their last win, a shutout over Hale-Ray on Oct. 20, the Devils faced a difficult four-game stretch starting with Valley Regional on Oct. 23. The Warriors rolled in a 9-2 rout.

It would be another eight days before the Devils would play again, and when they did, they were shorthanded to the hilt for their Oct. 31 match at Morgan. The Huskies won 7-0.

After Monday’s loss to Portland, Thompson said many of the players he has gone without were likely to be available for the Devils’ regular-season finale Friday (5:30 p.m.) at North Branford. The Thunderbirds have not won this season, giving Thompson some flexibility with substitutions.

“I’ll have to figure out how to balance (playing time for) the kids who just got varsity minutes with the players who are returning,” he said.

With just an 11-game regular season, the Shoreline is allowing all teams to play in this year’s tournament, scheduled to begin next Tuesday with first-round matches hosted by the higher seeds.

“This has been a great group of kids from a culture standpoint, probably the best group I’ve had as head coach,” Thompson said. “They are fun and they’re good kids. At the end of the day you take the positives where you can get them.”

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