2018: Tight Bonds, Tight Matches

Pre-season is held in intense heat. Around the state, athletic directors curtail training sessions and games. The Wreckers’ match with Fairfield Prep is canceled. A broken sprinkler head at Joel Barlow forces the relocation — in mid-match — from one field to another. Stapes goes 1-1-1 at the Wethersfield jamboree (with Nick DiMasi filling in goal, in the 3rd game; starting keeper Ry Cohen is still recovering from a mid-summer injury).

The traditional Martin Luther King match is played, for the first time, in New York City. Riverside Park is on the Hudson River, but there is no breeze on Labor Day: just 95-degree heat, and relentless humidity. Several Wreckers succumb to the conditions. The Westporters will enter the regular season coming off one of their poorest performances in quite a while.

Regular Season

Finally — just in time for the opener — the oppressive heat breaks. Loeffler Field is slick from a light, steady rain; the temperature is just 70.

Cohen returns to action against Fairfield Warde, though without much of a preseason. The first goal comes in the 22nd minute, against the run of play. Matthew Tanzer — an academy player who joined the high school side this fall, with Beachside teammate Austin Sholes — finds DiMasi. The senior striker – a reserve last fall — powers a shot in, from 30 yards. Junior Patricio Perez Elorza left-foots a 2nd score. After the Mustangs halve the lead, Mauricio Inglada rams in the bobble of Perez Elorza’s shot.

Four days of rain moves the much-anticipated — and FCIAC.net-televised — encounter with FCIAC favorites Danbury to the Wakeman turf. It’s a zippy contest. Tanzer delivers an early lead into the right corner, but 7 minutes later Staples fails to clear defensively, and the Hatters draw level.

A great save on Sholes keeps the scoreline even. Danbury controls the 2nd half, except for a blast by Lefty Pendarakis that’s saved brilliantly. The match ends 1-1.

Staples’ first visit to Trinity Catholic’s Giglio Field turf leaves them impressed. It takes them a while to find their rhythm, though Perez Elorza’s header off Sam Liles’ cross stakes them to a 1-0 lead. After intermission Liles delivers to a second head — Tanzer’s. Pendarakis and Brendan Lynch round out the scoring; it’s both players’ first varsity goals.

The Wreckers love Wilton’s wide Kristine Lilly Field. This year, they face the Warriors in the first varsity match ever played on the newly renovated surface. Josh DeDomenico makes his first start, playing confidently and simply. Cohen saves a tough breakaway, then Wilton bangs a shot off the near post. Wilton scores at a sharp angle. Six minutes later DiMasi pounces on his own rebound, finishing with authority.

In the second half Pendarakis shoots just wide, then heads a corner kick off the crossbar. In the 55th minute Perez Elorza’s 40-yard free kick clears the defense, the Stapleites camped in the box, and the keeper, for a 2-1 edge — and a hard-fought, well-managed win.

Staples and Trumbull are both 3-0-1, heading into the Wreckers’ Homecoming Day match. The hosts were hobbled by injuries, with another player out for 4 games due to an academic program in France. But — thanks to great focus, and 2 players making their first varsity starts — the blue-and-whites give the large Hill crowd a match worthy of its billing.

The Eagles strike first, on a 14th-minute header. But Staples holds vaunted Trumbull striker Jason Weinstein — already, early in the season, his school’s all-time leading scorer — at bay.  Midfielders Tanzer, DeDomenico, DiMasi and  Sealey work well together; Liles and Wilson Daniels help out on the flanks, and with defenders Rob Diorio, Nick Ambrose, Surya Balaji and Gabe Baltierra behind them, the Wreckers’ tight, shifting defense works.

Pendarakis, Inglada, Lynch, Daniels and Liles apply 2nd-half pressure. Cohen punches an in-swinging corner kick wide. A great save on Pendarakis keeps Trumbull ahead.

With 5 minutes remaining, Staples earns a penalty kick. Keeper Prizio guesses correctly, and makes a dramatic kick save. The Wreckers fight to the end. Once again they fall to their nemeses — but this time they are focused, disciplined, and hold their heads high.

Liles and Tanzer score in a 2-0 win over Central.

Cardinal Stadium is once again a nightmare for Staples. Two 1st-half PKs is all Greenwich needs. Throughout 80 minutes, the Wreckers never test keeper Jimmy Johnson.

Norwalk, by contrast, is always a crackling match. The Bears are 5-1-0, tied for 2nd in the FCIAC. Both teams play quick, possession soccer. Both have tough defenses and strong keepers. The atmosphere at Testa Field is great.

Co-captain Baltierra comes up from the back, and narrowly misses a header. The first half is skillful and tenacious. Only a swooping tackle by Balaji with 7 seconds left keeps the scoreline deadlocked.

In the 2nd half, Norwalk clears Staples’ best chance off the line. Pendarakis’ header just misses; DiMasi does the same. In the 54th minute Sealey slices a corner kick goalward. Sholes — who has missed the previous 3 matches with an injury — rises high. His power header stuns the Bears, and electrifies the Wreckers.

Cohen saves; so does his counterpart, Gianluca Trofa. In the 66th minute, Matt Hernandez finishes clinically for the hosts. Norwalk pours on the offense. But Staples’ hang-in-there defense — particularly co-captain Ambrose and sophomore Balaji — keep the door shut.

The Bears keep pounding, with 4 corner kicks in the final 5 minutes. Cohen is the hero of the match, playing with sure hands and confidence. The tie is more than satisfying.

DeDomenico, Liles and Lynch stake Staples to a 3-0 victory over Brien McMahon.

Loeffler Field is wet for the Westhill match. Staples slogs through, until DiMasi’s no-doubt-about-it shot bangs in off the underside of the crossbar. Cohen saves nicely, preserving the 1-0 win.

The Stamford match is a back-and-forth affair. Cohen is forced into several saves. Inglada almost scores in the 55th minute, off the crossbar. But with 22 minutes to go, it’s high-scoring forward Kenly Lalanne who snags a rebound on the slippery turf, and — against the run of play — scores.

The lead lasts less than 2 minutes. Inglada tears into the corner. He feeds Sholes, who laces a corner into the box. DiMasi power-heads home. Staples pours on the offense, but settles for another 1-1 draw.

At home against Ridgefield, Sealey taps in an easy 3rd-minute slot from Inglada. But then the hosts take their foot off the gas. They don’t go for the kill. The Tigers draw level 18 minutes later. The 2nd half is a different story. Inglada follows up Tanzer’s shot; DiMasi blasts another one in, and — after 2 fine Cohen saves — Pendarakis makes it 4-1. At the season’s ¾ mark, Staples is 7-2-3. The playoff hunt continues.

For a year, the Wreckers — and their many fans — anticipated Staples soccer’s 60th anniversary celebration. It’s set for a Saturday, against Darien. Blue Wave coach Jon Bradley is gracious enough to switch home-and-home matches, so the Wreckers can host the event.

Over 100 alums come, from as far as California. At same point in their careers, most played in a mud bowl. With the rise of turf fields, they’re rare nowadays. But Loeffler is one of only 2 grass fields in the FCIAC (Fairfield Warde has the other). After steady rain and a morning home game in which the Staples girls beat Fairfield Ludlowe, a mud bowl is exactly what the alumni get.

Despite the conditions, the Wreckers play good Staples soccer. They put the ball on the ground, play to feet, race forward and use the flank. They combine for give-and-gos, but don’t hesitate to take men on. They stick in hard on 50-50 balls, jump high for headers, and give nothing on defense.

DiMasi and Tanzer just miss wide. Sholes and Baltierra fire strongly. Perez Elorza is a defensive force; Diorio is a steady presence, and Ambrose and Balaji keep things tight. Still, Darien is equal to the task. The 0-0 tie is a score — and type of game — many alumni relate to.

Inspired by Mike Carey ‘01’s 60th-anniversary video — which they will watch over and over again, at every pasta dinner — the Wreckers play inspired soccer against Fairfield Ludlowe. Pendarakis’ 30-yard shot that skims in just below the soccer electrifies his side. (It’s also worthy of any goal they saw the night before, in Carey’s film.) The 2nd goal is gorgeous: a give-and-go between Sholes and DiMasi, with the Washington & Lee-bound senior finishing with poise and power.

Staples is playing with confidence. They’re having fun. And they enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime video chat with former US national team coach Bruce Arena, thanks to his former University of Virginia player/Staples coach Tom Henske. It’s all coming together, at the right time.

All 11 seniors — Pendarakis, Inglada, Daniels, Sholes, Baltierra, Sealey, DiMasi, Ambrose, Tanzer, Diorio and Cohen — start in the final home match, against New Canaan. On bumpy Loeffler Field the Sholes-DiMasi-Sholes combo clicks again, just like against Ludlowe. That’s all Staples needs. With one match to go, they’re in 4th place. They’d love a home match in the FCIAC tourney.

It’s Senior Day at St. Joseph. The Cadets have lost 8 straight. But in the 1st 7 minutes Sawyer Meehan rips a 30-yarder, off a long throw-in. The first goal surrendered in 307 minutes (4 games) puts the visitors in a hole.

DiMasi responds with a right-out-of-training follow-up goal, off Pendarakis’ rebound. Fifteen minutes, DiMasi again finds net, this time with a rocket. Sholes outruns the defense to make it 3-1, then gets another when his 40-yard free kick trickles through the keeper’s hands.

Staples finishes the regular season 10-2-4. And yes, they get that home playoff match they’ve been gunning for all year.

FCIAC Tournament

The topsy-turvy standings stabilize after the final matches. Staples (10-2-4) is #3. They host #6, 9-3-4 … Greenwich! The Cards were responsible for one of the Wreckers’ 2 regular-season defeats.

Following their new tradition, the Wreckers watch the 60th anniversary video at Baltierra’s house. Their goal: to have a massive, crowd-jumping, pig-pile — just like in years past — themselves.

A large crowd — including the reserve and freshman teams, girls soccer squad, football players and soccer fans from around the county — pack The Hill.

Just 10 minutes in, the Cards play a ball back. A defender and keeper Johnson hesitate. DiMasi pounces. He picks up the loose ball, cruises directly forward, and finishes into a virtually open net.

The goal — his 3rd in 2 games — spark Staples. Inglada, DiMasi, Sholes, Tanzer and Sealey work in tandem. Baltierra holds the middle.

Greenwich comes back in the second 20 minutes. Ambrose, Balaji and Diorio withstand the pressure. Perez Elorza picks up balls on the right side, initiating dangerous corners.

As the 2nd half begins, then wears on, the Westporters gain confidence. They do not bunker in. Daniels and Liles come on, delivering jolts of energy.

Staples keeps possession in the corners. They get all 11 men back on defense. It’s a team effort, and it works. When the whistle blows, dozens of fans pour down The Hill, onto the field. It’s a celebration just like in the video. But this one belongs to the 2019 team.

The semifinal pits Staples against the only other team to beat them this fall. Trumbull — #2, and a 7-5 penalty kick winner over Norwalk in their quarterfinal — is set for Taft Field at Fairfield Ludlowe.

The game flows intensely — and rhythmically. It’s tough. It’s tense. It’s fun.

The Wreckers want to attack the flanks. With Sealey and DiMasi, they do. Pendarakis holds on up top. Sholes and Tanzer run the midfield. Inglada, Daniels and Liles add spark off the bench.

Baltierra wins balls in the air, and lays off well. His fellow defenders, and keeper Cohen, keep the Eagles at bay. For long stretches of the second half, Staples knocks on the door. But then Trumbull surges forward. It’s like a chess match — with much more physicality.

Staples’ best chance comes with 15 minutes left. Prizio denies Tanzer, with a superb save.

The match continues scoreless, into overtime. The Wreckers have a 60-40 edge in the first 10-minute period. The second is dead even. Penalty kicks loom.

That’s great for Trumbull: They’ve already beaten Norwalk, in 2 rounds of them. They have great confidence in keeper Prizio.

Weinstein — shut out in 2 games now by Staples — scores his first attempt. So does Sholes.

Cohen saves the 2nd shooter. Prizio does too.

The next 2 Trumbull kickers are true. But Prizio comes up with 2 huge saves.

Suddenly – heart-breakingly — it’s the Eagles who race on the field to celebrate.

The Wreckers are devastated. The highlight-reel moment they’ve waited for — an FCIAC championship — won’t happen.

But there’s one more goal ahead, the biggest of all: the state crown.

State tournament

The Wreckers are seeded 10th in the LL tournament — their highest seed in several years. That gives them a home match. Their foe — Darien — knocked them out of the state tourney in 2014, then out of FCIACs the next year.

In 60 years, Staples has never played a home state tournament match away from The Hill. But with Wakeman wet from morning rain — and rutted from the earlier, 60th-anniversary match against Darien — this encounter moves to Wakeman.

A tentative first half leads to adjustments at intermission. But the Wave stuns Staples 2 minutes after play resumes. A slot from the corner is redirected by Charlie Sears into the far left corner.

With 38 minutes to play, the Wreckers don’t panic. They do play with controlled urgency.

In the 50th minute DiMasi draws the keeper out, for Staples’ best chance so far. Three straight corner kicks come up short.

The Westport pressure pays off in the 62nd minute. Balaji wins a header, and finds Perez Elorza. The junior lays off to Sealey, who launches a searing pass to speedster Inglada. The keeper comes out. With poise, Inglada finishes first-time with the outside of his foot into an open net. Staples celebrates wildly.

The Wreckers press on. The match grows physical, but the officials let both teams play.

The 2 overtimes — played to completion — see Darien control the first 5 minutes. Tenaciously, Staples gains control. They have several close-in chances, but none connect. For the 2nd straight game, penalty kicks will decide the outcome.

Unlike 8 days earlier against Trumbull, the Wreckers shoot with confidence. Balaji, Sholes, DiMasi and Pendarakis all convert. But the Wavers match them, shot for shot.

Diorio — Staples’ final shooter — makes it 5 for 5. Darien can force another 5 shots, with new kickers. Instead, the shot sails high. The Wreckers pile on each other, in the middle of the wet turf. Their fans jubilantly join them. It’s almost dark, but who cares? With grit, passion, adaptability, flexibility and flair, their side moves on.

For only the 4th time ever, their opponent is Cheshire. Sholes comes close on a header, but the 7th-ranked Rams draw first blood.

Their raucous fans’ celebration is short-lived. Less than 2 minutes later, Perez Elorza feeds DiMasi. His one-time shot delivers the stunning equalizer.

Staples presses hard. Sealey, Sholes, DiMasi, Liles — all make exciting things happen. Perez Elorza, Diorio, Ambrose and Balaji move together as a deensive unit.

Cheshire attacks too. A deadly cross is mis-headed wide. Tanzer responds with a shot that’s inches high.

Instantly, the hosts capitalize. They roar upfield, and fire. Cohen saves, and the rebound is almost cleared. But Denys Fuentes pounces, and finishes.

Down 2-1, with 14:49 to play, Staples comes right back. DiMasi laces a bullet — but it caroms off the crossbar.

Play grows fierce. A Ram yellow card is followed by a red to Perez Elorza, for retaliation.

Down a goal — and, for the final 8 minutes, down a man — Staples battles relentlessly. Defending their lead, the Rams clear vigorously.

A final attack finds Staples’ 10 men forward. Fuentes gets the ball, and ices the match with 6 seconds to go.

It’s a gut-wrenching end to a superb season. It takes a long time to process the loss. This is one of the tightest, hardest-fighting teams in years. Their 12 wins is the best since 2014; their winning percentage, the tops since ’11. Senior leadership has been superb. The addition of 2 academy players may set the scene for future moves, by younger players.

Yet sadly, there will be no video highlight reel state championship celebratory pig pile in 2018.

Quick kicks

The 19 players on varsity is Staples’ smallest roster in years …

Players on the roster not previously mentioned include Jack Douglas, Sebi Montoulieu and Callum Wisher …

Coaches Russell Oost-Lievense and Reilly Lynch lead the reserves to a 9-2-3 mark. Coach Chris O’Dell’s freshmen are 11-1-1….

The 2017 Staples varsity receives another United Soccer Coaches Academic All-America award, for a team GPA of well over 3.25. It’s the Wreckers 16th in 17 years…

A rule change — designed to let teams were their school colors at home — means that Staples now wears blue at Loeffler Field (and Wakeman), white away. Old habits die hard; it takes a bit of getting used to….

In May, the FCIAC mourns the death of Sebe Gangemi. The popular Trumbull High coach battled leukemia for over a year. The next month, longtime Wilton coach Jim Lewicki retires.

RECORD: 12-4-4

CO-CAPTAINS: Nick Ambrose, Gabe Baltierra

COACH: Dan Woog