Dan Woog is one of the staunchest opponents of hyperbole. Don't ask the Staples boys soccer coach to discuss his team's scoring leaders; most years he couldn't tell you. Championships are not built on individual statistics.
So when Woog uses the word "legendary" to discuss goalkeeper James Hickok, the syllables deliver a knockout punch.
"I'm not about to call him the best goalkeeper at Staples, because I never choose," Woog said. "This program has been built on defense for 54 years. But when you talk about the best goalkeepers we've had, James' name is high on the list."
Hickok's body of work supports Woog's praise. Playing for one of the state's most venerable and storied high school teams, where seniority and experience are jeweled assets, Hickok saw playing time for the Wreckers as a freshman -- Woog remembers his first start, a 3-0 shutout against Darien -- and has been the Wreckers' regular goalkeeper for the last three seasons. He was also a captain as a junior.
As Staples heads into the postseason starting today at Greenwich, Hickok has already been part of teams that have won one state and two league titles, and finished as runners-up once in both the FCIAC and CIAC tournaments.
"It has all gone by very quickly, and this season really quick," Hickok said. "Quicker than any season I can remember. Every game you have to leave it all on the field. You just have to make the most of it."
Those final words best summarize Hickok's years at Staples, though Woog said it took an initial setback for his keeper's full potential to be realized.
"I watched James play as a 7th-grader and I knew he was going to be a good one," Woog said. "He always played to the highest level he could, he always tested himself. Before the 10th grade he sort of had a downturn. He expected to be the varsity goalkeeper but he didn't prepare well, mentally and physically. In the preseason he saw he might not be starting. That was the defining moment in his career. He dedicated himself not just into being a good goalkeeper, but a legendary one. He's a student of Staples history so he knows what it is all about."
Perhaps Hickok's biggest save for the Wreckers came at the end of that sophomore year, in the FCIAC final against Fairfield Warde, when he punched a twisting shot by Kevin Petroccio over the crossbar in the final minutes to preserve a 2-1 win.
"Warde pounded us in the final 15 minutes," Woog said. "James played that ball perfectly."
Hickok has worked closely with the Wreckers' goalkeeper coach, Tom Henske, who played the position and won three national championships at the Univeristy of Virginia, following the season.
"He realized he still needed to get stronger, needed to get quicker," Woog said. "With Tom being there, they designed an offseason program to work on strength and conditioning, things like getting his upper body stronger."
Hickok's growth, as a person as much as a player, was recognized when he was voted a captain last season, when Hickok finished with 14 shutouts and earned All-State honors.
Hickok has been called upon to step up again this year, with a young team that features two juniors and a sophomore starting on defense.
"I played a bigger role this year," Hickok said. "I think I've been a true captain. I had to take these guys under my wing and show the guys what it's like to play a big game in the FCIAC. We've been getting better and better every game."
Prior to the start of the season, Hickok first had to deal with a back injury he sustained in May.
"When he was not playing he was going berserk," Woog said. "At the same time he was studying video, working on his upper body and doing as many things as he could."
That included another project with Henske: Hickok selected Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart as the subject of a research project.
"He did a Power Point presentation he gave to adults and players in the preseason," Woog said. "It developed his communication skills."
It was also part of the maturing process that led to two big decisions: to remain with the Wreckers after the U.S. Soccer Development Academy extended its training season and forced elite players to choose between teams, and to attend Dartmouth.
"It was a really tough choice for me. I found out in December about academy," Hickok said. "College was still an issue at that point. There were a lot of factors. I wanted to improve as much as possible, but Staples has done so much for me. I don't regret it at all. I've had so much fun this year. This is really important to me."
The Wreckers will enter the FCIAC Tournament as the No. 6 seed, not with a target on their back, but feared both because of tradition and a 7-1-1 finish to the regular season.
"People are definitely leery of us," Hickok said. "People should be leery of us. We had a few tough losses but it's hard to win them all."
The toughest was a 1-0 decision to Fairfield Ludlowe, a match the Wreckers dominated before allowing the deciding goal late in the game. It also came during a wearying stretch of seven games in 11 days.
"That game woke us up a little bit," Hickok said.
Hickok could close the book right now and utter the two words most often heard from the Wreckers' pitch after a successful play: Well done.
But like a self-driven author, Hickok feels he still has one climactic chapter left to pen.
"I think I've had a solid season so far, but I'm still waiting for that big moment," Hickok said. "It hasn't happened yet. I think we can do it. I'm waiting for that big game for myself. Making that one big save."
The stuff that legends are made of.
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