Rebuilding Not Part of Formula for Millis Girls Soccer Team
Assistant coach Molly Breen, left, and head coach Olivia Zitoli observe a Millis High practice session.
By KEN HAMWEY
Staff Sports Writer
Before the season started, Olivia Zitoli and her Millis girls’ soccer team listed two goals they were hopeful of achieving. Their objectives were to improve daily and qualify for the Division 5 tourney.
At Local Town Pages deadline (Oct. 15), the Mohawks definitely had improved, but in spite of a sub-.500 record, they’re still in a position to secure a playoff berth.
“Our prime goal is to qualify for tourney play,’’ Zitoli said. “As for the Tri Valley League Small Division, we knew that Medway, Dover-Sherborn and Dedham were very strong because of their tradition and talent. After last year’s nine-game, COVID-19 season, the girls became very committed to a successful future. They wanted the 2021 season to be positive and memorable.’’
Millis posted a 2-5-2 record last year in Zitoli’s first campaign as head coach. That squad lost 11 seniors to graduation but Zitoli never thought rebuilding was the next step.
Far from it.
Caroline Mundy, left, and Devon Gatz are captains of the Millis girls soccer team.
“We’ve got a healthy mix of veterans and younger players,’’ she emphasized. “And, among our 20 players, we’ve got a variety of strengths. We’re quick, have speed, are experienced, and have good depth, leadership and team chemistry.’’
Zitoli’s style is another plus — she prefers a defensive-oriented approach and a commitment to being possession-driven. “There’s value to be disciplined on defense,’’ she noted. “And, when there’s a focus on possession, it limits your opponent from scoring.’’
Through 10 games, the Mohawks had a 3-7 record but remained hopeful a tourney berth would be offered. Strength of schedule and margin of victory are now parts of a point system that took effect this year for playoff contention. And, to Millis’ credit, they’ve beaten Hopkinton and Ashland and suffered one-point losses to Holliston, Medway and Westwood. There will be 32 teams chosen for the playoffs in Division 5.
The Mohawks are a competitive bunch who prepare diligently and strive to outwork their opposition. And, there’s no better place to start when it comes to being competitive and hard-working than with the senior captains — center back Caroline Mundy and outside back Devon Gatz.
“Caroline is one of the fastest players in the TVL,’’ Zitoli said. “She’s the foundation of our back line. She’s got a high soccer IQ, has good instincts and her one-on-one defensive skills are superb. Devon also has a high soccer IQ. A savvy player on defense, she’s got speed and quickness, is aggressive, strong and very skilled.’’
Seniors Julia Grattan (forward) and Kailie Peck (center back) are also top-shelf competitors.
“Julia is aggressive and quick,’’ Zitoli noted. “She has great anticipation skills, her endurance is excellent and her footwork is very strong in the offensive third of the field. Kailie is strong and powerful, possesses good instincts and is tenacious on defense. Another plus is her clearing ability.’’
Three capable players in different roles are seniors Riley Conroy (outside midfielder), Sophia Sisto (forward) and Elle McClary (goalie).
“Riley is savvy and her endurance is excellent,’’ Zitoli said. “Her field awareness is very good and her technical skills are strong. Sophia is very fast and she’s fearless, never afraid of physical contact. She’s also very adept at pressuring our opposition’s defense. Elle has fine instincts in goal, she’s skilled and experienced. A great communicator, she displays lots of leadership.’’
Junior Ella Bender is a midfielder who’s effective in transition. “Ella is a skilled player who’s offensive and defensive-minded,’’ Zitoli offered. “She also displays great movement off the ball.’’
Two sophomores — defensive midfielder Emily Steiner and attacking midfielder Riley Caulfield — are young but well-skilled in their roles.
“Emily is talented, has tremendous foot skills and her stamina is excellent,’’ Zitoli said. “A strong distributor, she provides lots of defensive support. Riley’s passing skills are exceptional, her field vision is strong and she’s offensive-minded. An aggressive player, she’s dangerous in the offensive third.’’
The 29-year-old Zitoli has an athletic philosophy that stresses all the ingredients needed for success. “I want my players to be prepared, to outwork their opponents and to be leaders,’’ she emphasized. “I also want them to be confident and that comes from being in a competitive program. A competitive culture leads to winning and winning also results where there’s a good work ethic.’’
Valuable life lessons can be learned in sports and Zitoli lists five that she hopes her players will rely on in their futures.
“Athletics can build confidence, teach leadership and help with positive decision-making,’’ she said. “Sports can also help with overcoming adversity and building life-long relationships.’’
Last year, as a rookie head coach, Zitoli had to deal with COVID-19. This year, she coached her squad through five matches then had to turn the reins over to her assistant Molly Breen because of the birth of her son on Sept. 23.
“COVID created so many changes and many circumstances changed daily,’’ she said. “I’m glad this season didn’t require wearing masks. We had more chances to bond and to be back on buses.’’
Zitoli and Breen have roots that run deep, both at Millis High and in college. Both played soccer and basketball in high school. Zitoli enrolled at William Smith College (division 1) in Geneva, NY, and played on a national championship soccer team in 2013. On the Millis faculty for six years, she’s now an adjustment counsellor. Before taking the head coaching reins in soccer, she was an assistant coach for four seasons.
Breen, who scored a career 1,360 points in basketball at Millis, went to George Washington University but later transferred to William Smith where she played three varsity seasons of basketball at power forward. Breen teaches at Blackstone-Millville Regional where she’ll soon be starting her fourth year as the girls’ varsity basketball coach.
“Olivia convinced me to visit William Smith when I was considering a transfer,’’ Breen said. “I got the opportunity to play basketball there and it turned out to be a good fit. “At Millis, I’ve been with the girls’ soccer program for seven years, working as a freshman coach, then with jayvees and now as a varsity assistant.’’
If Millis does get a tourney invitation, it’ll be Breen who’ll be directing the squad in Zitoli’s absence. A playoff berth would be a fitting way for the Millis girls’ squad to bounce back from the COVID-laden campaign and make the 2021 season memorable.