The Notre Dame-Fairfield boys soccer team is scrambling to qualify for the CIAC Class S state tournament for the first time in years with three matches left in the season. To earn a berth, Notre Dame needs two wins and a tie, or better, with games Saturday and next Monday and Wednesday.
Whether they get there won't affect the enormous strides the Lancers have made this fall. Another victory will match the total number of wins they had accrued in the previous five seasons. After starting 2013 at 0-3-0, the Lancers have gone 4-5-1 to move into contention for the playoffs at 4-8-1.
This is unlikely to be a one-shot deal to become a tournament team. Coach Whitey Budreckas, in his 11th year with the Lancers, started five freshmen and one senior in their 3-0 loss to New Fairfield on Monday in Fairfield. One of their top players, their leading goal scorer, sophomore Mathais Martinez, was out with an injury, and Notre Dame featured but one senior, captain Emmett Whelan, in the starting lineup.
This is a stepping stone season.
"In the past, they'd have two or three players who could play and the rest would be fill-ins," said New Fairfield's Matt Schlosser, who has coached against Notre Dame for 13 years. "Now, they definitely can play all over the field. Today, they did nice with possessions and worked some nice (give-and-gos).
"Up top, their No. 11 (junior Kenny Fan) is a good player. He definitely had some opportunities. You can definitely see an improvement in the team," Schlosser said.
Coaching Notre Dame is a challenge, he said. The Lancers' competitition in the SWC is mostly larger Class LL and L schools. "It's definitely a challenge because they're going up against schools that have 60, 70, 80, 90 players in their program." Notre Dame has 33 now.
Some years, Budreckas said, he's had as few as 12 players. "I've had some good players here, some bad players and some average players, but they've all been great kids."
But he and the Lancers haven't had many wins. In 2006, Notre Dame went 0-14-1. In the succeeding seasons, the Lancers had compiled records of 0-15-1, 2-12-2, 0-16-0 back to back in 2009 and '10, followed by 2-10-4 in 2011 and 1-12-3 last year. Combined, that's 5-95-11 in that span -- 5-66-9 starting in 2008.
This fall, after opening with losses to Masuk, Newtown and Brookfield, the Lancers have defeated Kolbe Cathedral, Immaculate, Oxford and Bunnell. For the year, they have been outscored 49-24 but toss out the 11-1 loss to Barlow and that combined score stands at 38-23. Four times their opponent has been limited to one goal; Notre Dame has been shutout twice. In comparison, last year's Lancers were outscored 30-2, failing to score in 14 matches. Fewer goals were allowed in 2012, but they were outscored by a 15:1 ratio a year ago; this year it is 2:1.
This year's team has soccer smarts, skills on the ball and more than a fair share of speed, athleticism and some height. The ingredients are there, and Budreckas is mixing them into a decent team. They are no longer an automatic win on the opposition's schedules.
Whelan has done a good job of directing the players on the field, Budreckas said, but overall there aren't enough leaders. Against New Fairfield, aside from Whelan and freshmen Colin Burke and Pedro Oliviera, who are defenders, and ninth-graders Max Cano, Jeff Franco and Connor Jorge in the midfield, the Lancers started three juniors. The ball control of Joao Moraes, a 10th grader, frustrated New Fairfield all game long. Junior Kevin Franco was active and self-assured in goal.
But Budreckas has been the driving force.
He coached travel teams for 13 years in Wilton, then coached the McMahon boys team for two years before being hired at Notre Dame. For the last three years of Kristine Lilly's career at Wilton, Budreckas was the girls head coach, including two state championships, which led to his post at McMahon.
Before that, he played professionally with the New York Cosmos of the defunct NASL. No, he was not a teammate of Pele or Franz Beckenbauer, but some of his teammates back during his term stayed with the club long enough to play with him.
His directions from the sidelines are simple, if not direct. The Lancers were far from sharp against New Fairfield, and he did not try to hide his displeasure. "Never turn away from the ball," he would shout during the match. "Switch the ball. ... There's not enough movement. ... Who are you covering?"
Budreckas, 72, is excited about the possibilities. A student who does not speak English is being tutored in the language and plans to enroll at Notre Dame for the winter. Budreckas has seen him play and says he would be one of the Lancers top players in 2014 if he enrolls.
"They're learning. We're much better than in the past," Budreckas said. "They do understand soccer. Right now we don't talk to each other, and we're not helping each other out. We should be even better in the next couple of years."