By Brendan Kurie/South Coast Today
There's a few reasons why four SouthCoast products are guiding Curry College women's soccer to its best season in years, and we'll get to them all.
But first we have to start with Dartmouth's Kendall Fox.
It's simple to understand how important New Bedford's Kaitlin Lima (team-best 29 points), Dartmouth's Korinna Tsonis (second with 24 points) and Dartmouth's Morgan Stott (10-2 as the starting goalie, with a 0.76 goals against average) are to the team. But Fox? A senior defender with two assists and one shot on goal this season?
Yet Curry's 12 wins (entering Saturday), its most in seven seasons, are owed not only to Fox's prodigious on-field talents, but to her tenacious recruiting skills.
In 2012, Jason Tassinari left after one season at the helm of Bishop Stang girls soccer to take over a Curry College program that had won a combined 15 games in 2010 and 2011. Hailing from Plymouth, Tassinari had been the head men's coach at Stonehill for five years, and his wife, Andrea, has been the head girls coach at Brockton High for 13 years.
When he arrived at Stonehill, Fox was in his first class of freshmen. During a gap between coaches, she'd been recruited by men's coach Peter Mendel, who currently has two of his own Dartmouth recruits, Ben Silvia and Jake Szyndler. Over the next two years, Fox would steer Tassinari toward two of her previous teammates and one opponent. Together, those four, nicknamed the "Southeastern Mass Crew," would become integral parts of Tassinari's program, just a 50-minute drive north of their high school stomping grounds.
"I have always admired and liked the players that are in Southeastern Mass," Tassinari says. "There is a blue-collar, hard-working edge that they play with. There's a passion they have in that area that I love and a certain style and a certain attitude that I really wanted to bring here to change the culture of the program I inherited.
"Each of these kids has such a unique story. They have a unique road and path they've been on. It's fascinating with all of them."
When Fox, now a senior, was finishing up her career at Dartmouth High, she initially wanted to go far away to college, but with her dad passing away her junior season, she felt the need to stay close to family. Her interest in nursing brought her to Curry, where she fell in love during a tour.
So even though there wasn't a full-time coach on hand, Fox signed on.
"I wasn't ready to give up soccer," she says. "I still had the passion to play and I wanted to play."
And that's what she did, her playing time creeping up during her freshman season until she began starting midway through a 6-11-2 campaign. Then, on Oct. 8, in a game against Emmanuel, she tore her ACL.
"It was a setback," Fox says. "But I decided I still wanted to do the soccer thing. I wasn't ready to give it up. I've been playing since I was 4, and I started playing club soccer when I was 9. It was just always my passion."
She returned as a sophomore, but was never fully healthy and spent the season wearing a bulky knee brace. Her junior season was disrupted by ankle injuries.
"I give her credit," Tassinari says. "She got herself healthy this year. She rehabbed and is one of those players that shows you how much you can do to play if you love the game."
Possibly because of all those frustrating days spent watching from the sidelines, Fox has developed a scientific mind for the game, something that comes in handy at the back of Curry's defense.
"Kendall, first and foremost, is a soccer intellect," Tassinari says. "She has a tremendous understanding of the game. She has a tremendous amount of technical skill. She's as good as any player I've coached.
"Her and I have had some of the most outstanding soccer conversations, for an hour at a time. I'll miss that. I'd like to have her come in every week just to discuss soccer."
For his 2013 recruiting class, Tassinari needed a goalkeeper. He had a senior in net and no successor.
Fox had been in his ear about Stott, a fellow Dartmouth High product who had played on travel teams with Fox's little sister, Courtney.
"I'm telling him you have to come see this girl play, she's awesome," Fox told her coach. "She has a mouth, but she's worth it."
So during the 2013 state tournament, Tassinari and Fox attended a Dartmouth game in Franklin. There were a handful of college coaches clustered in the bleachers, and as the game progressed, a Franklin forward tried to kick the ball out of Stott's hands. No whistle. Stott launched into a heated conversation with the referees.
"There were some college coaches around me who were turned off by watching that emotion," Tassinari said. "I was the opposite. I liked it. I liked the passion. I knew she was standing up for herself and her team. I think that's a position that needs a controllable fire, a harnessed emotion."
Fox, meanwhile, was mortified.
"Um, she's really not this bad," she told Tassinari.
"Well," he told her, "she's got a lot of spunk in her."
Stott, now a junior, remembers the game well.
"I get a little hotheaded sometimes," she admits. "I actually had no idea he was there until after. Then he told me about the night he saw me start yelling at one of the referees."
Originally, Curry wasn't near the top of Stott's preferred colleges, but after hearing glowing reviews about the program from Fox, she was persuaded.
"Kendall talked about the soccer team and coach Taz and how good it would be for all of us to play together again. I took her word for it, and it's been good so far."
But by the time Stott, a criminal justice major, arrived on campus, she was already injured. A torn ACL during her senior lacrosse season at Dartmouth left her as a cheerleader as a freshman. During her rehab, Stott got plenty of encouragement from Fox, who was less than a year removed from her own ACL tear.
"She just told me to stay focused and do my rehab," Stott says. "She was very helpful through the whole process, mentally and emotionally and even physically."
Stott returned as a sophomore and started all 19 games, going 11-6-2 with a 0.90 goals-against average.
"At first, it was kind of hard because I wasn't sure how strong my leg was going to be and I wasn't sure the level of play I was going to be playing against," she says. "It was very different (from high school). It was very nerve-wracking. The skill level is a lot higher and the shots are coming at you a lot faster."
Now completing her second season as a starter — and with two years of eligibility remaining — she's allowed just 27 goals in 34 games, stopping nearly 90 percent of shots that have come her way.
"Whenever you can have a goalkeeper like Morgan that is so talented and such a good teammate and so emotional and so vocal, it's a nice feeling as a coach to go home and go to bed and not worry about goalie problems," Tassinari says. "Morgan has been one of the best goalkeepers in the conference. She's probably the best the program's ever had."
The only one of the four not to come out of Mark Poirier's Dartmouth program, Lima was a part of a recruiting class, with Stott and Somerset Berkley's Abby Sadlers, who ushered in a new era.
"My first class really signaled the change in this program," Tassinari says. "The culture started to change in a positive way and I think the wins show that."
Once again, it was Fox pulling levers behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz. Late in the recruiting process, during a January meeting in Tassinari's office, Fox brought up Lima, who had terrorized Fox's Indians squads while starring at New Bedford High.
Lima knew the Dartmouth girls well because her cousin and best friend, Jacqueline Salvador, played at Dartmouth. But Lima wasn't looking at Division III Curry.
"I didn't know it existed, to be honest," she says.
She had her sights set on Division II schools UMass Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University, or DIII Bridgewater State. But after talking to all three coaches, she wasn't sold on any of them. Then she got a text from Fox.
"Coach wants to talk to you," it read.
Lima agreed to visit Milton for a recruiting day.
"I really, really liked the school," she says. "I gave it a little while. It came down to (Curry) and SNHU. Their coach, the way she came across, it didn't make me want to go there. I picked Curry. I'm glad I did."
Suddenly, Lima and Stott, two of that year's top SouthCoast players, were both Curry-bound.
"Me and Kaitlin always communicated about it," Stott says. "But she had other schools in mind and she wasn't sure if she was definitely coming (to Curry). We didn't plan it, it just kind of happened."
"Here she had an opportunity to step right in and play," Tassinari says. "While I think she would have been a successful player at the DII level, I think her size might have limited her and not given her the most fulfilling soccer experience."
Lima burst onto the scene as a freshman with 23 points (11 goals, one assist), which was 16 points more than any of her teammates recorded during a 6-11-2 season. As a sophomore, she tallied 29 points (11 goals, seven assists) and has equaled that output this year (12 goals, five assists) despite moving from forward to midfield.
"We were very lucky to get her," Tassinari says. "She is one of the most gifted and talented goal scorers that I've ever coached and this program has ever had. She's also a tremendous kid. She's a very caring kid. Her shooting ability, her offensive prowess and her passion for the game are outstanding."
Even though other teams now gameplan specifically to take her out of the attack, Lima, who spent the summer playing for the Rhode Island Reds in the Women's Premier Soccer League, finds a way to get her shots, even after a move to midfield this season.
"She makes adjustments," Tassinari says. "She now has a bulls-eye on her back. She is a constant threat regardless of how well or poorly she's playing. She can be quiet for 89 minutes and in the last minute she scores. We really got lucky."
The strangest route to Curry's starting lineup belongs to Tsonis, who met Fox about the same time she met a soccer ball. Born just two days apart, they spent their fifth birthdays together.
"I was her first friend," Fox says of Tsonis, who was inseparable with Stott in high school ("Me and Korinna were exceptionally close," Stott says) and knew Fox while growing up next door to Salvador.
Tassinari knew of Tsonis because she gave his wife fits at Brockton. But first Tsonis went to Bristol Community College, where she had to get her academics straightened out before she could transition to a four-year school.
"I just wasn't sure what I wanted to do and I didn't have a plan figured out so I thought I'd go there," says Tsonis, who didn't play soccer at BCC. She spent many of her off-days and vacations visiting her friends at Curry. Halfway through her freshman year, she started talking with Stott about transferring. Curry was the only school she looked at.
But unlike Lima and Stott, Tsonis wasn't an immediate star. Her first season at Curry resulted in just two goals and one assist while she served as a substitute at center midfield.
"The biggest problem last year with Korinna was she wasn't physically at a level she needed to be to compete," Tassinari says. "She struggled last year, and I'd say she was a little disappointed. She had a difficult transition."
So Tsonis, a biology major who is never one to take life too seriously, got serious about soccer.
"We had to get her on track to realizing the potential she has and what we needed her to be," Tassinari says. "That's reflected in her fitness level being better, she's moving better, being more of a presence on the field. It was all about being serious and motivated."
Tsonis's newfound tenacity, coupled with a move to forward, has resulted in 11 goals and two assists this year. Her 24 points are 13 more than the team's third-best total.
"I fell in love playing forward right off the bat," says Tsonis, who was a midfielder at Dartmouth. "I just went out there and proved myself."
"I'm very proud to say we supported her through last year and gave her guidance about what she needed to do, and she's done it," Tassinari says. "She's elevated every aspect of her game, and herself."
What's behind it all?
Dartmouth High is no stranger to churning out quality collegiate soccer players. Right now, in addition to the three Curry stars, there's Kathryn Hiller at Providence, Ally Pontes at Bridgewater State, Morgan Gidley at Nichols and Alexis Eusebio at Simmons.
Some of it comes from the level of competition Dartmouth faces each year.
"They play in a good league and they play good competition, so the players there inherently have the benefit of playing good opponents," Tassinari says.
Some of it comes from coach Poirier's system.
"I know Mark's players coming out of high school seem to be prepared to compete at the next level. Whatever he is doing, it's working," Tassinari says. "To his credit, the players I've gotten have had an impact in my program and are prepared for the rigors of the game. From a soccer IQ standpoint, they're very high IQ players."
The players themselves, while quick to praise Poirier, give much of the credit to the Dartmouth Youth Soccer Association.
"I think Dartmouth has an amazing soccer program and I played DY my whole life," Tsonis says. "There's so many opportunities. That's what prepared me for coming here and playing in college."
"I think it's not so much high school, but it's before that," Fox adds. "It's the youth program (Dartmouth) has. DYSA is a great program and they have great leaders over there. That's where we all started."
But where will it end? Curry is eyeing a postseason run. With one regular season game left, they've qualified for the Commonwealth Coast Conference tournament and are hoping for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"I think we can make it into the tournament and go further than we've ever gone before," Fox says. "I have a lot of confidence in this team. We don't stop. We fight until the end, and I think a lot of teams are starting to notice that."
No matter when the Colonels' season ends, Fox, one of four seniors, will have a chance to gaze across the field one final time at her longtime friends and teammates.
"Recently, we had a moment," Fox says. "After a game I just looked around I said 'I can't believe we're all out here together.' It feels like we're playing with family. It's an unbelievable connection."