WESTPORT -- Behind both team benches at Loeffler Field rests a subtle reminder of the Staples High boys soccer program's decades of dominance.
Painted neatly on a wall in white lettering are the years from all 27 of the program's FCIAC championships--a total nearly three times the next closest team--and all 12 of the state championships.
When people recount Staples' storied tradition of winning--a run that arguably began with an FCIAC co-championship way back in 1961--they're likely to echo the names of the program's greats, more than 250 of whom went on to play in college.
A collection of those players etched themselves into lore along the back line, where Staples' legacy of impenetrable goalkeepers is rich.
"We take a tremendous amount of pride in it," said Dan Woog, Staples' longtime head coach. "We always say, `It's a lot easier to win a game 1-0 than 5-4.' Every goal you let up, you need to get two back to win. So we build from the back, forward."
From the program's beginnings in 1958 under the instruction of the late Albie Loeffler, Staples has fielded a line of players so accomplished at the position that alumni have dubbed the program "Goalkeeper University."
With netminders the likes of Shane Kennedy in the early 1970s--a draftee of the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in later years--manning the posts, right down the line to the present, there's a steep tradition to uphold at Staples.
"The tradition's for a reason," said senior James Hickok, the latest in the Wreckers' line of star goalkeepers. "At this point, in 2012, we use it as kind of a standard. We relate a lot to the `Staples standard' during our practices and games, and everything like that. ¦ We push for that all the time because we know that teams have won these championships in the past, and that's always attainable if you come to Staples."
A starter for the last three seasons, Hickok has helped the program live up to that motto. He's twice led teams to the conference championship game--winning it in 2010 against Fairfield Warde--and has also headed a runner-up finish in the Class LL state tournament.
For a program that, in the words of Woog, "celebrates the position, and honors it," figures like Hickok are revered.
"Everyone understands how important the position is in the Staples program. It's no longer the case where you put the fat, slow kid in goal and this is the right field of soccer," Woog said. "That's no longer true. Every team has good athletes in goal and good, tough, quick players. But I think we try to take it a step further and really, really spotlight the position.
"We make sure that everyone--players, coaches, fans, everyone associated with the program--understands that without a keeper, you're not going to go anywhere."
That Wreckers have rarely, if ever, faced that problem with a line of accomplished goalkeepers than began with George Scott in the team's inaugural season, and spans five decades. Stars the likes of Bob Simonton (FCIAC co-championship and state title as first-year starter in 1978), Alex Deegan (shared MVP honors in conference co-title in 1989) and in more recent seasons, Michael McCarthy (Class LL state title in 2009 and current goalkeeper at Washington University in St. Louis) have added to the legacy.
FUELED BY TEACHINGS
Woog, who is in his 10th season at the helm, is hopeful that Staples can continue to build on its tradition. A program that goes unrivaled statewide for its string of standout netminders, the Wreckers are one of the few teams to have a true goalkeepers coach in Tom Henske.
The Dartmouth College-bound Hickok has flourished in recent years under Henske's tutelage and is now a bona fide All-American candidate, in the eyes of Woog, despite playing on a back line that's without a senior. Hickok recorded eight shutouts in the regular season and has Staples heading into the state tournament on Thursday with a 10-5-2 record.
Henske, a three-time national champion goalie at the University of Virginia in the early 1990s, has worked closely with Staples' netminders since succeeding Paul Melitsanopoulos four years ago. Twice a week, Henske meets with the players and instructs them both on the pitch, designing workouts, and through film work, critiquing every detail he can find.
"There's really no one like him here in the state, I think," Hickok said. "He gives the team so much confidence just by being there, and gives advice, gives input. He has so much knowledge of the game and just has the ability to really lift the team up."
Over time, Hickok and Henske have developed a strong relationship and a level of respect for each other, the type that can lead an entire program a long way.
"We have a relationship like we're brothers," Henske said. "It's definitely not player-coach. It shows you how special a kid he is. How can a kid who has a guy just driving him this hard and being so judgmental on every little hand position and every piece of footwork ... respond and have a relationship with a coach?
"The answer is, you have a kid that wants it really bad. And he wants to be the best, and he knows that's what it takes."
Hickok realizes that those teachings have helped carry both he and the program.
"There's no goalkeeper coach I've ever met that has put so much time and effort into basically training a goalie than he has," Hickok said. "I really can't tell where I would be without him, but I definitely would not be as good as I am today."
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
While the impact of Henske's teachings have shown on the pitch, the coach has also made it a priority to stay connected with Staples' goalkeepers from past seasons. A fraternity that also includes Dave Sharpe, Adam Liu, Zack Randel and Wes Martino, among many others, remains in touch through "Staples Keeper Nation." Henske, who is admittedly big into film training, will email highlights from matches to a group of 20 to 30 of the program's alumni and will often receive feedback.
"It's keeper-specific," Henske said. "When I'm dialoguing, sending them updates, it's a little of how the team did, but that's only probably 10 percent. It's more about how the keeper performed, what was good, what wasn't so good."
Woog also keeps alumni updated through the team's website, www.staplessoccer.com, where he provides match recaps and a historical overview of the program.
"We keep them connected to the program, keep their names alive," Woog said. "Our goalkeepers understand that they're part of something special."
Everyone involved plans to keep it that way.
"It's so important for us to keep that tradition of great goalkeepers going because goalkeeping is the most important position on the whole field," Henske said. "It's important for the young kids who are coming through the system to say, `Wow, I want to be part of that. That's special.'"
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