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‘It Was the Right Time’: Hartford’s Sass Retires After 28 Years

Hartford High boys soccer coach Steve Sass, left, talks to his team during halftime of the Hurricanes' Vermont Division I semifinal loss to Colchester on Oct. 29 in Colchester, Vt. Sass has announced his retirement as Hartford coach after 28 seasons at the helm. 
Valley News file -- Greg Fennell

Hartford High boys soccer coach Steve Sass, left, talks to his team during halftime of the Hurricanes' Vermont Division I semifinal loss to Colchester on Oct. 29 in Colchester, Vt. Sass has announced his retirement as Hartford coach after 28 seasons at the helm. Valley News file -- Greg Fennell

Ask Steve Sass what his career coaching record for the Hartford High boys soccer team is, and he doesn’t have the foggiest idea. Ask him about his players, and he’ll be able to name virtually every last one.

After all, it was the his relationships with players and their families that mattered most to Sass over 28 seasons with the Hurricanes.

Not that the players weren’t successful on the field under Sass, 57, who recently announced his retirement. His teams qualified for the VPA playoffs 25 times, reaching the quarterfinals on 13 occasions and the semifinals three times. They finished .500 or better 17 times, including 10 10-win seasons and at least that many Marble Valley League titles.

Sass decided only recently that it was time for someone else to assume the Canes’ reins.

“I just felt it was the right time,” said Sass, a cabinet and mill woodworker by trade. “There are some upgrades going on at the school. They’re going to be practicing on new fields (the Maxfield property off of Route 5 South) and they’re going to be building a new turf field, and I just thought it was time for the program to have a fresh start with someone else.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, because I care a lot about the program and a lot about the players and families who’ll be coming back next year. It was just a good time to stop.”

Sass said his former player and assistant of 15 years, Kevin Guilbault, should be a strong candidate to replace him. P.J. Skehan and Gavin Davis are his other assistants.

A native of the New York City suburb of North Caldwell, N.J., Sass didn’t play soccer until middle school but went on to start two years as a midfielder for West Essex Regional High, helping the Knights capture the NJSIAA Division II state title in 1973. He went on to play four years at Middlebury College under coach Ron McEachen, winning an ECAC championship with the Panthers as a senior.

After graduating, Sass stayed in town to coach Middlebury’s “B” team, intermittently traveling to Connecticut to play in an amateur league. He later suited up for a club team in the New York City area, eventually earning a place on the reserve team for the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Following that short stint, Sass played for the Pennsylvania Stoners of the American Soccer League.

“It was a professional league with a much smaller pay scale (compared to the NASL),” Sass recalled of the ASL. “There were a lot of D-I college guys on the team, some guys from Hartwick and Syracuse, a guy from Penn.”

Sass moved to Hartford to work in carpentry in 1981 and immediately got involved with soccer in the community. He helped a group of parents start a fifth- and sixth-grade team through the Hartford Recreation Department, then applied eagerly when the Hurricanes position opened prior to the 1986 season. Knowing in advance he wanted to coach at the high school level, Sass had already started up his own carpentry business, Jericho Woodworking, in order to maintain more flexible hours.

Having been born less than a decade prior to his arrival and operating without a middle school feeder system, Hartford’s varsity team had never been over .500 and qualified for the postseason twice in its first seven seasons.

Accustomed to high-level play and a technical approach to the game, Sass had to adjust while helping his players build fundamental skills while working to help Hartford Middle School found boys and girls programs.

“When I took over, it was challenging, and I had no idea it was going to be as challenging as it was,” Sass said. “But in the same breath, I’ll say that I always enjoy a challenge, and it was a pleasure working with the guys and seeing the progress they made. There were a lot of kids who wanted to play, a lot of great kids and families. Once the program got settled in, we were able to start being successful.”

The Hurricanes made their first quarterfinal appearance in 1989, losing 1-0 to Woodstock. Two years later they went 13-4, earning the No. 3 seed and losing in overtime to Milton in the semis. Sass can name almost the whole roster from that team, recalling staunch contributors such as Kris Beinder, Jason Spaulding and Peter Johnson. He also hasn’t forgotten anyone from a 1993 team that was ranked No. 1 before a 2-1 heartbreaker against Burr & Burton in the D-II final. It was Sass’s lone championship game appearance.

“I still feel like we were the better team on the field that day, and there were some things that went against us that I didn’t like, but that’s soccer,” Sass said. “We had some great leaders on that team, guys like Lane Gibson, Jay Golder and Pete Milne.”

In 1998, the Hurricanes were the No. 2 seed in D-I and undefeated prior to a 1-0 loss to No. 6 Brattleboro in the semis. Following a 10-win season in 1999, the Canes had difficulty achieving post season success for much of the next decade. As one of the smallest schools locked into D-I, Hartford advanced as far as the quarterfinals just twice from 2000-08.

“We always tried to have a competitive regular-season schedule that would prepare us (for the playoffs),” Sass said. “But we had trouble against stronger sides in the state tournament that had kids more accustomed to a better level and who could handle the intensity of the playoffs better than we could.”

Sass’s 2009 team earned the No. 2 spot with a regular-season mark of 10-2-2, but was upset by No. 7 Missisquoi in the quarters. Hartford had 10 wins and was No. 4 before a first-round loss to South Burlington in 2012, then put together one of its best seasons ever last fall.

The Hurricanes went 13-2 before a 2-1 overtime loss to Colchester in the semifinals during a year Sass takes great pride in.

“This last year, we had great chemistry,” he said. “As coaches, we always try to be inclusive and work with everybody, and that really carried over to the players this year. They were very supportive of one another. If someone made a mistake or did something that wasn’t quite right, there was never any biting criticism. They all really just wanted to improve each other, encourage and support each other.”

Sass is happy to be leaving behind a team with healthy numbers, consistently attracting between 40-50 players to help make up complete rosters for both the varsity and junior varsity teams. Hartford’s middle school and youth programs also continue to thrive.

“Soccer has really grown in the time that I’ve been here, not just in Hartford but all around the area,” he said. “If your kid wants to play soccer, he’s going to have a place to play it, which is good because it’s a great game.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.