Mario Longobucco was like most American kids growing up back in the 1960’s and 1970’s; he was a baseball junkie. He was also into ice hockey, which was making inroads in the Torrington area at the time. But once he turned his attention fully to soccer his life has swirled around the game ever since.
“I played on the Torrington youth hockey team as a kid and, of course, I always loved baseball,” Longobucco said, as he sat in the empty grandstands at the Robert H. Frost Sports Complex behind Torrington High School on a hot summer morning. “We had some great baseball players in 1974 when I was getting to high school age and I thought maybe I would have a better chance at making a team if I gave soccer a try. Or as my brother pointed out; `You aren’t ever going to make that team’ Turns out he was right, as THS won the State Championship and many of the same guys went on to win the State Legion Championship. I was not in their league as a baseball player.”
Longobucco had gotten involved in soccer through a precursor to the Torrington Youth Soccer Association. “The team’s driving force, Bill Pearson, was way ahead his time when it came to soccer in the area. UNICO was a sponsor of our team and we competed in the CT Junior Soccer Association. I began playing a lot. We had some great players come up through the league, guys like Kenny and Eddie Pearson, Kyung-jin Park, John Novajasky from Litchfield and Richie Waite who also played at Litchfield. I was raw but playing with guys like that I learned and got better. Bill Pearson might be mostly forgotten in some soccer circles, but he deserves a lot of credit for getting the ball rolling at the youth level in 1973.”
Well, Longobucco, now 59, made the Torrington High School team as a freshman, at the same time the fledging Raiders launched a full varsity schedule after faring well with a junior varsity slate of games. It didn’t go so well. “We got destroyed that first year, we were playing the Bristol schools and other very good teams and we just didn’t have the players to match up. I don’t know if we scored a goal,” he added with a smile.
But once players like the Pearsons and Park got to THS, things began to turn around. The team slowly improved, stopped getting swept off the field, and by the time Longobucco was a senior, the Raiders qualified for the state tournament. He played forward and averaged around four goals a season for the his career at THS.
After high school, he played for the Torrington soccer club until about the age of 26. “The Litchfield County Soccer League was awesome back in those days. There were some real top players. I wasn’t the best but I was scrappy and physical and I loved to compete. It was a lot of fun. But I tore an ACL in 1986 and there was no repairing it adequately enough to play.”
Despite telling his wife, Diane, that he might be spending more time around the house now that his playing days were done, Longobucco threw himself into coaching the Torrington team, which he did for 10 years until the Litchfield County League “fizzled out”. He and his wife have two children, Brett and Alyssa, and they both became active in sports, playing in the local youth soccer leagues. Of course, dad got right back into coaching his kids and it was something he greatly enjoyed. “I’ve been telling Diane one more year since the mid 80’s,” said Longobucco.
”Both our children played and I had a blast, Paul O’Heron and I coached the kids and it was enjoyable teaching them fundamentals and how to play the game.” Brett was a fairly skilled player who starred at THS and played four years at Division III Endicott College, where he served as captain his senior year. He also played at the Farmington Sports Arena where he grew as a player, dad explained.
“When Brett got to Farmington he was perhaps the 24th best kid on a 27-man roster. When he left, he was maybe the seventh or eighth best. He learned a lot that helped him in college. He wasn’t extremely fast but he was a tough player who luckily never got hurt. He had the most minutes played record at Endicott until recently.” Brett is now the strength and conditioning coach at the University of Mary Washington outside of D.C.. Alyssa Longobucco was hampered by several serious injuries during high school but enjoyed her time on the field when healthy. She is now editor of Knot Magazine in New York City. “Alyssa, is a real winner in everything she does. We are very proud of how kind and caring she is of her family and friends.”
Mario Longobucco, who has been a commercial real estate agent for the last 14 years with Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT, segued into his current position as head coach of the Torrington High School girls soccer program 12 years ago, replacing the late Glen Aeschliman.
“I inherited a great team that had won eight or nine games the previous season and we went 15-1 in my first season as the head coach,” Longobucco said. “I mean, we just intimidated some teams. We were big and good and we rolled over teams. We had players like Sarah Royals and Taylor Christiano, who were both All-Naugatuck League, and other players like Morgan Thulin, Olivia Morrison, Sarah Parrotta, Brittany Kackowski, Aly Otis and Maria Cerrutto who were very good players in their own right.” Unfortunately, the Raiders ran into a strong Masuk team in the second round of the state tournament that year, losing, 4-2.
What followed were some solid years, seasons in which THS was competitive and posted winning records, but the program has fallen on some hard times. “I don’t think we have won more than four or five games a season the last five years” said Longobucco. “Our numbers started to drop and we weren’t getting an influx of young players. We bottomed out at 15 players four years ago and that was horrible. The current leadership at TYS has done a great job at ramping up the production of girl players and teams. We should be getting a partial team coming to us every year or two for the next few years.”
But that may be set to change this year, given that there is a season what with the COVID-19 pandemic playing havoc with schools and sports. The Raiders have two All-NVL players back, senior goalie Abby McCarthy, and senior defender Payton Graham, to serve as the core of the squad and finally a sizeable influx of young players coming up from the youth ranks. McCarthy and Graham have been co-captains since their sophomore seasons, their coach grooming them to play leadership roles as upperclassmen. Said their coach, “McCarthy has committed to continue playing at the University of Hartford and Graham certainly could play in college if she chooses to.”
“We have about 30 girls out for the team and that is a huge jump from where we have been in recent years. Some of them can play and will help and that’s all you need to start to turn things around. I’m hoping we can win half our games or so and make the tournament. There will be some teams we will struggle against but others that we can beat. The fact that we have more players creates internal competition and that makes a team better. The better players have to stay on their toes knowing that there are other girls wanting playing time. It also gives us the opportunity to play a junior varsity schedule instead of having girls sitting around who won’t play varsity and becoming disinterested, and not progressing as players.”
Longobucco said he has changed as a coach. “I used to be very competitive, very fired up during practices and games. I have mellowed a bit because it is just the way the kids need to be treated now and perhaps I have mellowed with age. I’m still very competitive, I love coaching and teaching, and I get excited about coaching. But I’ve toned my approach down a bit. I still keep to my motto when I tell the girls that they can act like a lady and play like a guy. Don’t be afraid to get in there and be physical.”
Longobucco believes kids have changed as well over the years. “I guess a coach’s mission is different than it used to be. There are kids who need to be pushed and kids that don’t. You can’t treat everyone the same. I try to remain in touch with my players once they leave school and am in contact with some of them, although there are others who just move on and that is fine. For me, when a player remains in touch or comes back I feel I have succeeded in establishing a bond that goes on beyond high school.”
As for how long he will continue coaching, Longobucco is taking it one season at a time. He may become deeply involved with a committee that is seeking to build a new high school, which would demand much of his time, should the project pass in referendum. He’s also just become a grandfather, and that will demand some of his attention, of course.
“I still love it so who knows how long I will continue to coach. We have one year contracts so we go season to season. I’ll tell you one thing, if there was a qualified female who was coming out of college and was a player and that wants to coach I would step aside in a minute. I know someone like that would be a plus for our program, and a great role model for our girls.”
But for now, Longobucco is getting ready for another fall along the sidelines, looking to make the Torrington girls soccer team relevant again in the Naugatuck Valley League. It’s been awhile since that was the case and the head coach and his girls are ready to make some noise.