This article was originally published in MetroWest Daily News.
A steady contributor since she was on the Northeast-10's All-Rookie Women's Soccer Team as a freshman, former Hopedale High School star Lauren Kapatoes' personal success on the pitch hadn't added up in the win column. Kapatoes and her Stonehill teammates, however, weren't ready to embrace any gloomy prognostications this year.
A steady contributor since she was on the conference's All-Rookie Team as a freshman, the former Hopedale High School star's personal success on the pitch hadn't quite added up in the win column.
From 2013 through 2015, the team went 17-29-8. It was little wonder, then, that Stonehill was picked 12th out of 15 teams in the Northeast-10 preseason coaches' poll.
Kapatoes and her teammates, however, weren't ready to embrace such gloomy prognostications for the Easton-based program.
"In the spring we worked hard on the field, in the weight room — our motto was to prove people wrong," said Kapatoes, a senior tri-captain this year along with goalkeeper Jamie Block and defender Claire O'Brien. "We went by that this year, both in the offseason and during the season. When those outside the program were expecting the worst, we had nothing to lose.
"We shocked people."
With Kapatoes leading the charge, the Skyhawks sent those shockwaves across the league early, and kept them going right through the NE-10 tournament. First, all they did was jump out to a 10-0-1 record (6-0-1 in the league), notching seven shutouts in that time for the program's best start since 2000. On a schedule that began Sept. 2, the team didn't lose until Oct. 7 at St. Anselm. That defeat led to a bump in the road, as Stonehill lost five of seven games entering the NE-10 tournament.
In November, with the NE-10 tournament coming to their Easton home, Kapatoes and Stonehill recaptured the early-season magic. A 2-0 quarterfinal win over the College of Saint Rose preceded a 1-0 victory over defending league champion Adelphi.
That set the stage for the NE-10 final, what Kapatoes called "definitely my favorite moment of my career." The team's leading scorer saved her best for the biggest game in the program's recent history, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over Pace.
Kapatoes earned NE10 Tournament MVP after she scored the two goals in a 2-1 championship game
In helping push the program to just its third NE-10 Conference title ever and its first since 1995, Kapatoes was named All-Tournament MVP and Championship MVP. The team picked to be a sub-.500 also-ran was 15-5-1, on top of its league, and having earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Division II tournament.
And a former three-sport Hopedale Blue Raiders standout was the offensive catalyst.
"From the last couple of years to this one, it was a complete 180," Kapatoes said. "Winning only four games last year, the expectations were low, but we knew what we could do with our roster. To go undefeated in September, to winning the league and making the NCAAs with an automatic bid? I can't even describe it. It was a crazy season."
Crazy, maybe. But not entirely unexpected. Fourth-year head coach Alex Wilson took the job before Kapatoes' freshman year, seeing the tri-captain grow along with 10 classmates who stayed on board with the program. Watching Kapatoes grow into the role provided an encouraging sign.
"In her first year as a captain, Lauren really made it her own," said Wilson. "She embraced it. And after up and down years in the past, this being her senior year, she was so committed to being her best. She knew her success would mean team success. Her caring nature with teammates, whether it's a soccer issue or a non-soccer issue — her leadership came to a head at this juncture."
So, why such a turnaround? You can start with cohesion. The team lost just one senior off the 2015 team that went 4-10-4 and welcomed in eight freshmen. That, and the group of 10 seniors stayed intact since freshman year.
Team chemistry can be overstated sometimes, but it is of the utmost importance in a sport where no one person not named Ronaldo or Messi can do it all.
"The biggest difference from previous years was familiarity with one another, both on the field and off the field," Wilson said. "Coming off a not-so-great 2015 season, they were ready to experience a lot of firsts. Because of that disappointment as juniors, they were ready to stay committed to each other. Tactically speaking, we put more goals in. And overall, we were a well-balanced team."
Kapatoes, as she had done with ease when she was a standout at Hopedale, led the goals charge. Her 18 points (8 goals, 2 assists) led the team as it scored 39 goals as opposed to 14 the year before. For her efforts, Kapatoes was named second-team All-NE-10 and third-team All-East. Along with several teammates, she also played in Saturday's NEWISA Senior Bowl at Merrimack College, an annual all-star game involving some of the top collegiate soccer players in New England.
Kapatoes led the Skyhawks with eight goals and 18 points this season
"We stayed together and had a chemistry that connected the team as a whole," Kapatoes said. "We wanted to win every game. Everyone wanted it this year, and every senior led the way. It was such a nice core group who had seen the highs and lows. … I think this year was about having the confidence to know we could do it, and the seniors taking the leadership role and showing freshmen what it means to be a part of this team. We were a collective — nothing happened individually."
That mentality has stayed with Kapatoes since growing up in Hopedale, a small town with a vibrant community spirit. The daughter of Kevin and Melinda, the younger sister of Heather, the older sister of Matthew, the star soccer, basketball, and softball player — Kapatoes embraces each role with a vigor.
"My brother's in the Super Bowl on Saturday!" the proud sister proclaimed Thursday. Indeed, Matt Kapatoes was a center and defensive tackle for the Millis-Hopedale football team that won a state title with a win over Maynard on Saturday. She added, "And my sister is my biggest role model in my life. She and my parents."
That idea of the collective, of coming together as a family, a town, a school, helped draw Kapatoes to her college choice.
"Stonehill reminds me of home, with that feeling that everyone is supporting each other," she said. "And I couldn't have scripted my career any better."
A win in the NCAAs would have been nice, but Stonehill fell to American International, 3-1, at the University of Bridgeport (Conn.).
Kapatoes, a business major at Stonehill, kept such a game in perspective.
"That game was icing on the cake," she said. "We were taking in the moment, appreciating the opportunity for what it was. Only 48 teams in the nation were in that spot, and we were one. I appreciate being a part of the elite group that made it there, and it was an experience we'll never forget. To do that, as a team, it was just awesome."
With Kapatoes helping lead the charge, maybe Stonehill's Northeast-10 title wasn't so shocking after all.
Tim Whelan Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thattimwhelan.