FAIRFIELD — What is the secret to the Fairfield Warde boys soccer team’s success over the first half of the season?
I’ll let Mustangs coach Justin Ottavio explain.
“We have Saturday practices from 7-9 a.m. and we come off the pitch and the parents have a tailgate, with chocolate milk, bagels. It helps bring the team together,” Ottavio said.
Nesquik, camaraderie and a not insignificant amount of talent have the Mustangs sitting at 6-0-2, one point out of first place in the FCIAC, heading into tonight’s rivalry game against Fairfield Ludlowe.
Warde’s place high in the standings was expected a month ago. Being one of two unbeaten teams was not.
“It’s pretty surprising,” said Jake Berecz, one of the Mustangs’ leading scorers. “We knew we had a great group of guys coming into the season but we never really thought at this stage we’d be where we are.”
Danny Villalba, the Mustangs’ other top scorer and co-captain, agreed.
“We knew we were going to be a good team from the start,” Villalba said. “It blew my mind and I think everyone else’s that we’d stay undefeated. The ties that we have, it’s a shame, we could have beat them.”
Warde’s 3-0-1 start to the season did little to raise eyebrows, but it was the most recent 3-0-1 run that has elevated its status. The wins were shutouts over Staples, Danbury and Greenwich. The draw was a wild 3-3 game with Wilton, which has been the biggest surprise and has also stamped itself as a viable championship threat.
Part of a large group in the race for the regular-season title, the Mustangs no longer look like the side that does not belong on the same level with the sport’s old-school money teams.
“The Staples, the Greenwichs, the Norwalks, the Danburys, they all have a legacy in this league,” Ottavio said. “Some longer than others, but they all have been perennial powerhouses over the last 10 years. For us to go in and play as well as we did against the teams we’ve beaten or tied has given us a boost in confidence. It definitely puts the wind at our backs, gives us the opportunities to deal with adversity in the future, to draw on our experiences to get through tough times.”
Warde in recent seasons had a penchant for wide-open play that resulted in some of the conference’s highest scoring games. The Wilton contest aside, the Mustangs this fall have allowed just two goals in their other seven games.
“The defense has done quite well,” Ottavio said. “I think it has all been because of their organization. They organize quite well and recognize the systems that are competing against us to pick up their opponent, their man quite well.”
Ottavio, who sometimes sounds more like a philosophy professor than coach when assessing his team, was reticent to single out any individuals because the Mustangs have flourished due to a collective effort.
“We have a lot of technical players with a lot of heart and desire, and it’s nice to see that we’re not relying on just two or three people because anyone at any point can score, and-or provide an awesome assist,” Ottavio said. “I think at certain points we need to get composed and mentally outthink people in chess matches. The big three that we’ve played thus far have been chess matches, and tactically we’ve done well with adjustments and the athletes have responded to that in a positive manner.”
The players’ high hopes coming into the season have been elevated by their brilliant resume.
“The more we win, the more confident we get,” Berecz said. “We have been fortunate to play most of the tough teams already but I think the more we win, the more confident we will get, which will help us going forward.”
Villalba said part of him misses the days when the Mustangs were viewed as mere aspirants.
“I think it’s better that we stay under the radar,” Villalba said. “Under the radar is better because we don’t have all that pressure on us. Not now. We have a big X on our backs.”
Warde has only reached the FCIAC final once, a loss to Staples in 2010. While few would be surprised if the Mustangs make a return trip next month, the same can be said for a number of teams. There are, of course, just two spots.
“Soccer is a fickle game,” Ottavio said. “There are a lot of variables that can impact a game. Mental status is probably the most important. The idea in belief. I think we have established we can play with the best of them and believe that we can be successful, but the regular season to the postseason is an entirely different animal. The stakes are higher, the stress is immense and the desire for the status of FCIAC champion is what everyone covets. We are willing to face the challenges, deal with the adversity and hopefully get a little luck on the way. We’re excited.”