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Athletics Hall of Fame Spotlight: 2003 Boys Soccer Team

The 2003 boys soccer team will be inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame during Homecoming and Reunion on Oct. 19, and 16 years after that miraculous season, which saw the team win the MAC Championship, players still have vivid memories of what made that season special. They recall a grueling preseason, intense warm-ups before games, and a playing style that made the whole better than the sum of the parts.

The season, which saw the team run off an 11-2-2 mark including 9-1-2 in the MAC, began with a trip to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where players started each day with a long run and three-hour practices between meals.

“We all knew right before the season had begun that it was going to take a lot to get through the season,” said Jeremy Knighton ’04, who played varsity all four years. “I think we all came out of that highly conditioned and ready to play.”

Early games were rough, with a scoreless scrimmage against Georgetown Prep and a loss at home to Bullis. The turning point was the team’s first league match against Maret School. Down 2-1 at the half, the team came back to win 7-2.

“It took us a while to find our groove. We made a few mistakes, but what colored that game for us was how we bounced back from it,” said Knighton, who scored all five of the goals in the second half. “I think the defense did a really good job of getting their heads back in the game. We saw what we could do and we were playing the right game. It set a nice tone for the rest of the season.”

Coaches Alex Haight and Gregg Ponitch implemented a flat back four defensive strategy; players remember this style frustrating their opponents and giving the Lions an advantage.

Dylan Connelly ’04, who was a midfielder for most of his soccer career, was surprised when Ponitch put him on defense his senior year.

“I thought I would be stuck on the back board all game, but it turned out that [flat back four] would run me even more than a normal midfielder,” Connelly said. “There were quite a few times when the defenders would be behind the goalie stopping the ball from going in the goal, just because we were so defensive minded.”

Players also went through intense warm-ups before each match. Connelly recalls 25-minute stretching and dribbling routines before every match that more than warmed up players before the whistle blew.

“It was intense because you were winded by the time the game started,” Connelly said. “Coach Haight was trying to get us to the point where we didn’t need 20 minutes to get into game – we were immediately competing.”

The Maret game set off a winning streak that was only broken by a loss to Sidwell Friends. Ultimately, St. Andrew’s came out on top in the regular season and beat Georgetown Day School 3-1 to win the MAC Tournament.

Haight and Ponitch credit the season’s success to the leadership of the team, particularly the influence of co-captains Mike Brown ‘04 and Warren Rizzi ‘04.

“When you say seniors should be leaders, the seniors were truly leaders and our captains were truly captains,” Ponitch said.

Rizzi, however, said it was the coaches who made the difference.

“Haight taught us a level of ‘soccer smarts’ that is probably rare at the high school level,” Rizzi said. “At the time, I thought it was the players that achieved the success but in hindsight I know it was all Haight and Ponitch. They prepared us physically and mentally for the full season before it started but also made sure to prep us before each specific game.”

Haight said the chemistry on the team continues to inspire him in his 23rd season coaching St. Andrew’s soccer.

“To me, that team worked harder than any team I have ever coached.” Haight said. “I still compare every team to that team. Their pieces fit together; the whole was better than the sum of its parts.”

The Hall of Fame Induction will take place at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 19 during the Reunion Celebration Brunch in the Student Center Dance Studio. This year’s inductees include the 2003-2004 varsity boys soccer team, the 2003-2004 varsity boys cross country team, and student athlete Alex Azzara ’07.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal School is a private, coeducational college preparatory day school for students in preschool (Age 2) through grade 12, located in Potomac, Maryland.