The Real Deal
This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Stoneham boys' soccer coach Jim Carino began hearing the name Mike DeSantis about five years ago.
Those who had observed the adolescent soccer prodigy told Carino this was the kid who would take the Spartans to new heights. But Carino had heard it all before and mentally stored the name among the other would-be saviors heralded through the years.
Two years later, the buzz started up again when DeSantis arrived at Stoneham as a freshman. But when Carino showed up for the first day of varsity practice and didn't see the much-hyped sensation, he figured this was just another kid who failed to live up to the expectations.
"I must have heard his name a million times while he was still in the seventh or eighth grade, but it was just another name to me," says Carino, who is in his 18th year at the Spartans' helm. "Come to find out, he joined the freshman team his first year here. The freshman coach only needed one game before he realized how much talent was there. I still didn't see him for five more games, though. My JV coach decided to hang on to him as long as he could before I got wind of it. The kid must have scored 14 goals in a six-game period."
Midway through his freshman season, DeSantis finally joined the varsity squad and proved to be every bit as good as advertised. During his sophomore and junior seasons, DeSantis led Stoneham to two state finals, one state co-championship and an overall record of 39-3-6. And as one of 11 returning seniors this year, he's hoping to cap his legacy by winning the school's first outright state title.
"We plugged him into the starting lineup as soon as he got up to the varsity level, and I don't believe he's missed a game since," says Carino. "The thing that boggles my mind is that he just keeps getting better. Sometimes you get a talented freshman and they never progress. But Mike keeps putting the effort into becoming better. Usually when I leave practice, he's still out there practicing one aspect of his game."
As a 5-foot-10, 160-pound midfielder, there's nothing about DeSantis' physical makeup that immediately stands out. But once he starts moving on the field, it's like watching ballet. He moves effortlessly and makes complex ball-handling moves look simple and fluid. Teammates simply shake their heads as he weaves through defenders.
But what really stands out about DeSantis is how much better he makes his teammates. He rose through the ranks of youth and club soccer with the reputation of a goal scorer, but at the high school level he has excelled at setting up his teammates. Entering this season, DeSantis had registered 17 goals and 37 assists in his varsity career.
"Mike pretty much controls the entire game," says Stoneham senior midfielder Steve Mahoney. "He owns the middle of the field and can do whatever he wants. He defends, he scores, he assists. There's really nothing a team can do to totally shut him down."
Teams in the Middlesex League and throughout Eastern Mass. have had a particularly hard time trying to stop Stoneham since DeSantis came along. While he grabs many of the headlines and accolades, the Spartans' success stems from their core of seniors who have been playing together for the better part of a decade. And DeSantis is the first person to heap praise on everyone but himself.
While coaching in the local youth soccer program, DeSantis' dad, Mario, was one of a handful of area fathers who noticed their sons were particularly talented. Those same fathers decided to keep the boys together as they progressed toward high school, believing their natural chemistry would make them a formidable squad in the future.
As a result, the Spartans have been seemingly inseparable since youth soccer. In fact, DeSantis admits the group doesn't even talk on the field because they know each other so well.
"We started coaching the kids when they were maybe 9 or 10 years old," says Mario DeSantis. "Even when they were just playing six-on-six locally, we saw there was a lot of talent. We even set up our own little club team (Appian) here in Stoneham to keep the boys together. It's a great bunch of kids, and we're so glad we were able to keep them together. Their chemistry really shows on the field."
Stoneham reached the Division 3 North sectional final when DeSantis was a freshman, but the team really came together two seasons ago. Stoneham rolled through the regular season with a 13-1-4 record and earned the second seed in sectional play. The Spartans then won three one-goal games — including a 2-1 victory over Wayland on penalty kicks — to claim the sectional title.
In the state final that year, Stoneham battled Sutton to a 0-0 tie and was crowned co-state champion because the MIAA doesn't allow teams to go to penalty kicks in the championship game.
Stoneham followed that up by posting a 16-1-1 regular-season record while winning the Middlesex League title again last season. The Spartans then outscored opponents 13-1 in five postseason victories before succumbing to Grafton, 2-0, in the state final.
That's all the motivation DeSantis and Co. needed to come back even stronger this year. The Spartans opened the season by defeating league rival Lexington, 4-0, to avenge their only regular-season loss from a year ago. And it's no secret what this team's ultimate goal is.
"I don't even like it when we give up a goal," says DeSantis, who was named The Boston Globe Division 3 Player of the Year last season. "All I'm thinking about is leading this team to a state championship. And honestly, we feel like if we play up to our ability level, there's no reason we shouldn't win a state title."
Carino knows all good things must come to an end and plans to savor every moment of this season. But he's not particularly worried about next year. Turns out those same folks who kept whispering the name Mike DeSantis rushed back shortly after with another name: Mark DeSantis.
"He's got a younger brother, Mark, who's a junior now and is probably going to be even better than Mike," says Carino. "He's taller and quicker and can really score."
None of which the elder DeSantis brother disagrees with.
"Mark is probably the best forward in our league," says Mike, who is hoping to land at Northeastern, UMass or Boston University in college. "I'll take some of the credit for that, but I wouldn't have half the assists I've got without him. I know I'm leaving the program in good hands after this season."