1996: RETURN TO GLORY
• Will this year’s crew – virtually all back from the previous fall – pick up where they left off? Or has the year-long drumbeat of criticism from coaches, parents and concerned alumni sunk in? A pre-season victory over defending LL state champion Xavier-Middletown gives an early boost of confidence; so does a solid scrimmage win over defending L champ Bethel.
• But the Wreckers do not open with a win. Despite outshooting Greenwich 16-6 (4-1 in overtime), they tie the Cards 1-1. However, unlike last year this does not degenerate into a foul-filled, foul-looking debacle. It is exciting and enjoyable. Staples comes from behind, solving excellent keeper Bill Orum midway through period 2, when Raiford Cockfield’s long throw is headed along by Mike Rea. Ryan McDonald, a transfer from Maine, crashes through to head up and in past the cluttered defense.
• The rest of September goes slowly. Three rainouts, 1 sunny-day-but-unplayable field and a referee no-show delay the next match – a 6-0 rout of Norwalk. Then comes another week off before the big Fairfield rematch. It is anticlimactic. The Mustangs are a shadow of their former selves. Just 1 minute in Peter Maric jukes and slices a pass through several defenders that Brendan Cass taps home. Ninety seconds later Cass wins a 50-50 challenge and feeds Bobby Guadagno, who banks a breakaway off the post. Tyler Mitchell and Maric complete the scoring. Brad Tursi asks, "Is there anything more fun than good soccer?"
• Just before halftime at Darien, Cockfield fractures his leg while making a trademark tackle. He joins previous Staples stars who also sit out seasons with broken legs – Dale Hollingsworth, Paul Hunter, Gordon Hull (twice) and Guy Claveloux – but that is no solace to the tri-captain or his teammates. Juan Esteva fills in, and rises to the occasion. Playing a record-setting fourth match in 1 week, depleted by injuries (including Guadagno’s back), and tired from concert-going the night before, the Wreckers allow Trumbull to tie with 2:37 remaining.
• A 3-0 win in their first-ever meeting with St. Joseph sets the stage for always-tough Wilton. Staples creates good first-half chances, but manages only 3 shots. Led by Guadagno, they storm back after intermission. In the 53rd minute Tursi’s 25-yard free kick into the wall comes back to Mitchell’s foot. His shot is the margin of victory.
• The home Columbus Day morning match against Danbury lives up to its billing. Maric, back after a 2-game injury, proves his worth 5 minutes in. He takes Mike Dobbs’ pass and, with flawless timing, pace and change of direction, feeds Mitchell for a 1-time shot. Six minutes later the 2 hook up again.
• In a 34th minute goalmouth scramble Ed Spooner is kicked in the stomach. He retaliates, is ejected, and the Wreckers play the final 46 minutes 1 man down. They adapt well. They cede half the field to the Hatters, hunker down on defense and – thanks in large part to keeper Wes Martino – emerge with a 2-1 win and the Western Division lead.
• Stamford, 11-0, is the second big game of the week. But 10-0-2 Staples meets the task. Just a minute in, Mitchell’s header over the keeper is swatted away by defender Fernando Arango. Dobbs slots home the penalty kick; Arango is gone, and goals by Kyle Martino, Cass and Rea send the Knights reeling, 4-0. The Wreckers end 13-0-2 for their 13th undefeated regular season, but first of the ‘90s. They have exorcised a few ghosts from the past – but more need to be dealt with.
• Greenwich arrives for the semifinal, and for the first 60 minutes the hosts play flawless soccer. Fans thrill to their quick, short-passing game, intense work in tight spaces, and consummate teamwork. The first tally, at 21:03, is sweet. Tursi picks up a bouncing ball and ropes a 40-yarder into the back netting, passed the stunned Orum. The second score, 5 minutes before halftime, begins with Maric deking down the left. His cross finds Mitchell, who takes 3 quick steps before slotting a low pass across the box that Rea finishes. The last 20 minutes are sketchier, but the final shot count of 18-5 is indicative of play.
• The Halloween night foe is Danbury, and this championship game joins a long list of other Wilton High classics. Staples dominates, showing skill, speed and selflessness. Losing coach Gary Donaldson admits, "They outworked us, moved to space without the ball, and almost totally outplayed us. Almost everything we did was in reaction to what they were doing."
• The first 60 minutes are again superb. Spooner is so fiery at left back that the Hatters stop attacking there. So he moves further up, and initiates many dangerous forays. The first goal, in the 33rd minute, begins with an indirect kick from Dobbs to Martino. The sophomore’s shot rams off the underside of the crossbar and rockets back to Mitchell. He waits patiently for the ball to drop, then calmly tucks it right. The goal helps him be named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
• The second score, 11 minutes after halftime, is equally fine. Maric gathers the ball on the far left side with his back to the net, then fluidly turns and uncorks a 30-yard line drive that zips like a laser into the opposite corner. Donaldson claps and says, "That’s a great fuckin’ goal."
• Brimming with confidence and ranked third (their highest spot since 1981), the Wreckers open with #30, 8-7 New Milford. The Green Wave give Staples the entire offensive half of the field, pack the back, hope for penalty kicks – and get it. Eighty minutes of regulation time, and 20 of overtime, end scoreless.
• The Wreckers’ first penalty kick match since 1980 begins auspiciously. The guests sky their first shot, and Martino saves #3. Meanwhile, Dobbs, Tursi and Mitchell all strike true. But Kyle Martino is saved and Maric hits high (like Roberto Baggio in Italy’s World Cup loss), and the game advances into sudden death PK OT. Wave keeper J.R. Waters, who made several outstanding stops in the first 100 minutes, is his team’s sixth man. His shot soars over the crossbar. But he is not through: He goes right into goal, and tries to save Spooner’s kick.
• Sidelined by a groin pull, the FCIAC finals’ hero has not played a minute against New Milford. But he answers Lea’s call for volunteers. He stares Waters down, fires hard – and scores, in the right corner. The unlikely hero is engulfed by his relieved teammates.
• The first 60 minutes against visiting Notre Dame-West Haven (#14, riding an 11-game win streak) are uninspired. Missing Spooner, their spiritual heart, does not help. But they perk up in the final 20. They tally on their first legitimate opportunity, when Mitchell heads in Kyle Martino’s free kick. The Green Knights knot the score 3:26 after halftime – right after Lea says "one goal will not be enough" – and Staples wakes up. Five minutes later Rea flicks on to Tursi, whose 40-yard service into the area finds Mitchell making another superbly timed run. He finishes again with his head, redirecting to the far post. The Knights fight to the end, attacking with 9 men, but Martino comes up big twice to secure victory.
• The next Knights are from Stamford. They are seeded sixth, but despite their revenge-filled minds – and the Wreckers’ problems with 7 injuries, fatigue, a strong wind and a mid-game shoving match – Staples rolls to a 3-0 win at New Canaan’s Connor Field. In the 27th minute Dobbs’ long direct kick finds Rea challenging sophomore keeper Mike Sala. As the ball pops high Kyle Martino coils, leaps and heads into the back of the net.
• After several Wes Martino saves, Staples goes up by 2. Just 2:02 before halftime Cass spins his defender around twice, then launches a cross. The wind carries it forward, and Sala bobbles it into the net. "It was a Brazilian move and a Haitian goal," Cass deadpans. Two minutes into the second half, with the referees losing control, a minor brawl erupts. Kyle Martino falls to the ground, his lip swollen and bleeding. After the match he receives 20 stitches, but not before assisting on Maric’s 35-yard goal.
• The semifinal, against #15, 14-3-2 Simsbury, marks Staples’ debut at Waterbury’s Memorial Field. It is also the first time the Wreckers play 2 penalty-kick games in the same tournament. The Trojans enjoy a size and speed advantage, but play a primarily defensive match hoping for a breakaway or lucky goal. It never comes. So, like New Milford 9 days earlier, they too get 100 minutes of scoreless ball, then penalties. But the northerners are confident: Two days earlier they eliminated #10 Greenwich on PKs.
• In contrast to their previous game, Staples wins the toss and elects to shoot first. Dobbs rips, lower right. Simsbury beats a diving Martino left. Tursi’s left-sided shot is strong, but saved nicely by Ben Stillwagon. The Trojans score right, and lead 2-1.
• Mitchell strikes well left, but again Stillwagon saves. However, starting with shooter #3, Lea comes through big time. He scouted Simsbury 2 days earlier, and took notes of each shot. Unfortunately, the first two kickers did not go against the Cards. The third one had. Lea signals Martino to dive right. He does – and saves perfectly. Kyle Martino then redeems his miss against New Milford, banking the ball in off the right post.
• Again Lea motions for Wes Martino to dive right. He does. The Trojan shooter goes left – but misses by inches. After 4 chances, the teams are dead even at 2. Spooner, the previous hero, steps up. Stillwagon gets a hand on it – but not enough. It rockets past him, into the goal. If Martino saves the next shot, Staples reaches their 15th state championship game.
• For the third time, Lea signals to dive right. Martino does. The Simsbury kicker goes straight up the middle. But in mid-dive the keeper, looking backward at the ball, somehow manages to extend his foot, and kick-saves it over the top. The pig-pile on the frozen night ground in front of the winners’ bench is one of the biggest in Wrecker history. Just one year after their most inglorious season ever – and the second highest number of losses – undefeated Staples is going to the Big Dance.
• Their opponent is 20-0 Guilford. Like the Wreckers, they are an L school playing up in the more prestigious LL division. For the first 25 minutes at North Haven’s Sachem Field, Staples is in charge. They knock the ball well, control the pace – but fail to launch any telling shots.
• Midway through the first half, the momentum swings. A brief scuffle breaks out when Wes Martino is shoved in the goalmouth. Three yellow cards are issued – all to Guilford. But the loss of striker Adam Greenberg and midfielders Brian Lavin and Jared Leake – excellent players all – for the rest of the half inexplicably turns the tide the Indians’ way.
• They keep command until, with 15 minutes to play, Maric, Guadagno and Mitchell begin making things happen. Spooner goes into overdrive. The match has everything – solid defense, creative offense, hard tackling, poise – except a goal. The Wreckers appear readiest to score.
• Five minutes into the first overtime, however, Guilford takes a bad throw-in. The referee allows a retake, because a player being substituted for had not reached the sideline. That seemingly insignificant do-over looms large when John Talbot launches a longer throw than his first. Yoshio Kaneko heads it 12 yards from goal. It caroms around the slippery, crowded box. Somehow the Wreckers miss it; somehow Jake Hollander does not. Suddenly, the game is over. It is a bitter end to one of the best, most fabled seasons in Wrecker soccer history. In defeat, however, Staples players hold their heads high. They have reaffirmed the program’s commitment to passion, success and class.
• Cass’ epitaph for the season: "We lost the game. But we were not beaten."
• The Wreckers finish third in the statewide poll, eighth in New England. Their 19 victories in 1 year set a school record. In addition, no previous Staples squad has played 3 overtime matches in 1 state tournament, or 22 games in 1 season.
• Tursi, Dobbs and Wes Martino make the All-FCIAC first team.
• Guilford’s win ties them with Staples for state championships (11). However, this is the Indians’ first in LL.
• Longtime social studies teacher, soccer timer, fan and soccer parent Dave Harrison is guest speaker at the banquet, held at Norwalk’s Continental Manor.
• Coach Rich Hiltz’s junior varsity goes 6-2-2.
• Other players not previously mentioned include Dan Cummings, Peter Diamond, Ted Gallant, Stephen King, Tim Rozsa and Jon Zucker
TRI-CAPTAINS: Raiford Cockfield, Mike Dobbs, Wes Martino
COACH: Jeff Lea
1997: THE STREAK ENDS
• Everyone knows the previous fall that graduation will strip the Wreckers of a ton of strong, experienced and emotional players. No one predicts what follows in the off-season, however. Co-captain-elect Bobby Guadagno learns he fractured his back in the same Darien game that ended Raiford Cockfield’s season with a broken leg; Guadagno does not play again until August. Lee Dahut, an up-and-coming sophomore striker, returns to Israel. Ryan Durst, the junior who took his premier team to the U-16 state championship and is penciled in as starting keeper, hurts his knee at soccer camp and misses much of the first month. Tyler Head, a tall, strong sophomore defender, contracts mononucleosis in August and is out virtually the entire year. And Kyle Martino, who has trained with the national U-16 team, enrolls at the adidas Soccer Academy in Florida.
• Pre-season scrimmages – a 3-1 victory at Xavier-Middletown and a trio of mini-game draws with E.O. Smith-Storrs, North Haven and Daniel Hand-Madison – augur well. Still, with the FCIAC split into 3 divisions (Staples is in the mid-sized Central), and a killer start to the season, predicting what will happen is impossible.
• The opening match, at home against Fairfield, is not the disaster doomsayers expect. Backup keeper Joe Juliano is the man of the match. The senior makes several key saves in the 0-0 draw. The best comes with 5 minutes to go in the second overtime, when he punches a wickedly curving 20-yard free kick over the top – then races out to snag the ensuing corner kick. But the game is filled with bad omens. Just a few minutes after the opening whistle Jon Love misses a header by inches, lands underneath the keeper and hurts his ankle. He misses several matches.
• The next match is far different. With Stamford’s field under renovation the game switches to Cubeta Stadium, site of 4 consecutive FCIAC championships for Staples (1978-’81). This time, however, a 2-0 halftime deficit turns into a 6-0 disaster. It is the worst defeat in Staples’ history. The bigger, faster, stronger, better Knights give the Wreckers a lesson not unlike those they taught teams throughout the state for decades.
• Ridgefield is no better. Falling behind after 68 minutes, the visiting Westporters immediately draw even. Alex Wasserman’s looping shot off fellow freshman Jim Wolf’s touch ends a frustrating 250-minute scoreless skein. One minute later, though, a midfielder is sent off for shirt-pulling, and before Staples can realign marking assignments, Jon Thwaites scores. The Tigers get the insurance tally 1:47 from time.
• Danbury is next, and for the second time in 4 matches, Staples is clubbed 6-0. Suddenly, they are 0-3-1. Just as suddenly they lose 4-1 to former league doormat Harding. But the Presidents enter the match 3-0-1, and 3 goals from Christian Roque and 1 by Jose Lainez (1 of 3 talented transfer brothers) prove the Bridgeporters real.
• As quickly as the season seems lost, however, the Wreckers turn it around. Facing Bassick at Kennedy Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 25, coach Jeff Lea unveils a new lineup. Guadagno is at sweeper, where he maximizes his speed and ball control skills. Ted Gallant is stopper; Ryley McWilliams plays man-marker, freeing himself to move forward. Mike Rea, hobbling on 2 sore ankles, is paired with Wolf up front. And keeper Durst makes his first appearance of the season.
The new combination clicks instantly. In the 15th minute Wolf half-volleys Gallant’s long ball and Matt Cass’s quick cross into the net. In the second half Wasserman squibs in Rea’s rebound.
• The next victory, 2-1 against Westhill, comes with a price. Love scores on the same play that McWilliams takes an accidental elbow to the nose. The break is bad; his speed, tenacity and tough marking are sorely missed. It takes until Oct. 7 for Staples to even its record. Love and Rea score against Brien McMahon. The club’s new goal – to finish .500 and qualify for the LL tournament – seems attainable.
• The home Wilton match is a great one. Guadagno blows past opponents on offense and defense, strips them of balls, and plays so fiercely the Warriors stop trying to penetrate. Just after halftime Gallant laces a 40-yard direct kick over the top. Wolf burrows his way inside the 6, then leaps high to distract the keeper. When the ball lands, Wolf stuffs it side netting. The final 38 minutes are hairy but, thanks to defenders Darin McCollum and rapidly improving Chris Capano, hard-running John Mayer and Jon Bermudez up front, and Wolf’s tough defense at midfield, Staples hangs on.
• A listless Columbus Day practice precedes a 0-0 draw at Central. Two days later the Wreckers pour out their frustration against Norwalk – like Staples, battling for a tournament berth. Rea (3 goals) and Love score, but the 4-2 win is not easy. They fail to play 80 minutes of consistent soccer, and allow the Bears back in a game they should have put away.
• The Westporters need at least 1 tie in the final 3 matches to qualify for the state tournament. Saturday morning, Oct. 18 – at 10-2, senior-laden Greenwich – seems a tough place to get it. It seems even tougher 14 minutes in, when Cameron MacLean rockets in a ricocheting free kick. The goal is especially frustrating for Durst because MacLean is his step-uncle. Yet the Wreckers bounce back quickly. Wolf, double-teamed in the goal mouth, nonetheless finds Kris Hrisovulos. The sophomore nets the first tally of his varsity career.
• The rest of the half is marred by 4 yellow cards – 2 to Greenwich players, and 2 to Guadagno. His first is for retaliation, his second for what seems a legitimate tackle. Without the sweeper’s tenacity and tight marking, Staples comes unglued. The home side snags victory with a pair of nice goals.
• The penultimate match pits 6-5-2 Staples against 9-3-1 Trumbull. The soccer gods are not kind to the home team: Not only are several starters injured or ill, but Guadagno sits, the result of 2 yellow cards against Greenwich and a previous 1 versus Stamford. But his teammates give it everything they have, and in the 18th minute Alex Sichel wins a tackle from an opponent a full foot taller. He beats two foes, then feeds fellow sophomore Pat Ashby (a transfer from Fairfield Prep) for a left-footed shot.
• The Wreckers go wild, then ratchet their game up another notch. McCollum, Capano, Hrisovulos and Mike Petropulos tackle tough and distribute intelligently, while Gallant has his best match of the year at Guadagno’s sweeper spot. McWilliams is back after a 3-week layoff; he, Sichel, Wolf, Mayer, Bermudez and Rea apply tremendous pressure up front. As the clock ticks down, Staples stands tall – and the Golden Eagles flag. Still, Durst is forced into 2 big saves with 3 minutes to go.
• Timer Dave Harrison strides onto the field, counting the seconds down. Suddenly, Trumbull has 1 last chance: a free kick from 20 yards out, in front of the net. The Wreckers fail to stall for time. The wall is weak. James Samatulsky rips a low, hard grass-cutter. It beats everyone, near side. Unbelievably, just 6 seconds from a tremendous, hard-earned win, Staples heads to overtime.
• The young squad, needing just a draw through 20 more minutes, cannot keep their heads screwed on. The Eagles, jolted by the incredible goal, pour in 4 goals – 3 by Jason Golesky, all on excellent shots – and turn a near-amazing Wrecker victory into a heart-rending defeat. Equally devastating, co-captain Gallant goes down just 1 minute from the end. Utterly frustrated, he puts his entire body into 1 final tackle. He tears knee ligaments, and is lost for the season.
• Just as Lea predicted might happen 4 months earlier, in a June meeting with his incoming team, the entire season comes down to the final game, at Darien. Incredibly, the gods are even tougher on Friday, Oct. 24 than they have been all year. The Blue Wave is in the exact same situation as Staples. Both teams are 6-6-2, needing a tie to qualify for the states. Ashby is away at the start: He is traveling from Washington, D.C., where his father is undergoing Senate hearings to be confirmed as Ambassador to Uruguay. Petropulos is also unavailable: He misses the team bus, searching for his shorts. Guadagno misses the match due to a quirk in the rules: He must sit 2 matches, not 1, for his 2 yellow cards in Greenwich. The starting stopper is Head, the mononucleosis victim who has not played 1 varsity minute all year. And 1 of the referees is a man acknowledged to be among the weakest in the state.
• Still, Staples gives the game everything they have. The makeshift lineup holds through 20 tense opening minutes, when the Waves threaten but cannot score. The Wreckers receive 2 big boosts when Petropulos and Ashby finally enter the field, then get an even bigger one when Durst smothers a breakaway cold at the edge of the box.
• But bad luck quickly returns. Directly in front of the Staples bench Petropulos receives what appears to be a vindictive yellow card on a hard, but not horrible, foul. A few minutes earlier he had questioned the official’s judgment. "Yeah, you got it now (the card)," the ref says. As the defender leaves the field for his mandatory 10-minute ban, he kicks the ice bucket. The official instantly hauls out a second yellow, ejecting Petropulos for the rest of the match (and the next 2, if the team survives).
• Lea inserts Matt Killian, a freshman who has never played a varsity game – and has practiced just once with the team. He acquits himself well, and in the second half clears a shot off the line. But the challenge is stunning. For much of the match there are no seniors on the field; often there are 3 freshmen, and up to 4 sophomores.
• Ultimately, the Wavers wear the young squad down. With 15 minutes to go in regulation time Sean Devlin pounces on a poor defensive clear, scoring from 6 yards out. Staples refuses to yield, pressing up and nearly evening the score. But they do not, and at the final horn Darien celebrates wildly: their entry into the state tournament, and first victory over Staples since 1988. The Wreckers – locked out of the state tournament for the first time ever, with the first losing mark in the school’s history — fear they have failed. They cannot comprehend that they have faced more adversity, and handled it better, than just about any squad before.
• The junior varsity, coached by Bedford Middle School teacher Joe Benanati, finishes 8-3-1. Chris Mitchell serves as varsity assistant coach.
• Other team members not previously mentioned include Stephen King and Dan Vecchi.
• Trumbull suffers a state tournament loss as bizarre as their win over Staples. Up 2-0 against Stamford with 6 minutes to play, they surrender 2 goals – the second with just 9 seconds to go. The Knights win in sudden death overtime.
CO-CAPTAINS: Ted Gallant, Bob Guadagno
COACH: Jeff Lea
1998: BACK TO NORMAL
• Bolstered by a turnout of over 40 players – the best in several years – the Wreckers set out to prove the previous year an aberration. Their many fans hope so: This fall features 2 special events, with hordes of alumni in attendance. The first, on Sat., Sept. 19, is the 20th reunion of the 1978 state championship team. A week later, the Staples soccer field will be named in honor of Albie Loeffler. The still-young Wreckers hope not to disappoint either group. They draw confidence from a pre-season win over Daniel Hand-Madison and a draw with North Haven. They fall to E.O. Smith-Storrs by only a 1-0 count.
• The season opens auspiciously. Staples gains revenge against virtually the same Darien side that knocked them out of state tournament contention 11 months earlier. In the 64th minute Matt Cass lifts a long direct kick into the penalty box. Kyle Martino calls Jim Wolf off, and easily nods in off the right post. Both teams fade late in the 90-degree heat, but keeper Ryan Durst ensures victory.
• Two days later they travel to Fairfield, where the ’78 state champs watch the Wreckers lose a lead, their keeper and their composure. The first goal comes in the 14th minute, when Bobby Guadagno lofts a 25-yard free kick high over the wall. Wolf waits calmly before heading over keeper Dave Carothers’ head. But the midfield breaks down, the Mustangs run free, and the equalizer comes at 23:09. Durst is kicked in the jaw, but keeps playing. Several minutes later, though, he falls to the ground, and action stops for half an hour while he is attended to. Without a backup keeper, Wolf is called into action.
• Meanwhile, parent Barry Cass races back to Westport, yanks sophomore Matt Katz off the junior varsity field, and roars back to Fairfield for the second half. Katz calls the ride (not his first varsity minutes) the scariest time of his life. Despite his good work, the Mustangs grab the lead in the 61st minute, then add an insurance tally 34 seconds from time. The alumni are not impressed. Nor are they pleased when Kyle Martino, back now at Staples and the object of much attention because of his U-18 national team experience, spends the final 10 minutes on the bench, following a yellow card cleats-up foul.
• After a 4-1 loss to Stamford, the Wreckers vow to get their act together for the Loeffler Field celebration. Dozens of alumni gather on the hill for the ceremony; they greet the former coach reverently, and First Selectman Diane Farrell makes a warm speech. Once again, however, the Westporters fall apart. An unnecessary foul 6 minutes from the end of the game gives Ridgefield a chance to take the 2-1 lead. They do, almost embarrassedly, and despite strong pressure at the end the match ends with another discouraging defeat. To their credit the players head to the cafeteria, meet Loeffler, and take their lumps from the alums.
• They do not get back on track against Danbury (a 3-0 shutout), and fall to 1-4. At this time last year they were only marginally worse: 0-4-1. For the second straight season, the state tournament looks unattainable. But against a good Harding side, featuring the same Christian Roque who stunned them the previous fall, Staples rallies. Spurred by a large Homecoming Week crowd, they get a second half header goal from Jon Love, then 3 minutes later tack on another when Martino buries Kris Hrisovulos’ fine cross from. Looking good are junior Tyler Head, in his first start at stopper; new right back Ryley McWilliams, and sweeper Guadagno, who intercepts balls the fleet Presidents seldom lose.
• The winning continues against Bassick. The 3-1 victory is the 300th of coach Jeff Lea’s career. He gets #301, 2-1 over boom-balling St. Joseph, the first time the Westporters ever play at the Trumbull school. The surging Wreckers inch above .500 with a hard-fought 1-0 decision against defense-minded Wilton. The match is delayed 30 minutes until a second official appears; that gives the Warriors, who went 100 minutes the day before a bit more rest. It is not enough. Guadagno steadies things in back. Martino roams all over midfield and initiates many attacks, including the gamer in the 21st minute. He tackles strongly and races upfield, leaving 3 defenders in his wake. Finally, 10 yards from net he finishes hard, low and to the corner. Durst saves well, and with Wolf, Martino and sophomores Mike Carey, Matt Hendrickson and Zack Gross moving the ball quickly and wisely, the Wreckers keep momentum.
• Less than 24 hours later the match is again delayed 30 minutes (Brien McMahon bus trouble), and the Wreckers take the field without Martino (on an Indiana University recruiting trip) and Cass (injured knee). But they do not miss the 2 seniors. Playing what Fred Cantor ’71 calls "vintage Staples soccer," they stop the Senators 2-0. The first goal, in the 10th minute, starts with an Alex Wasserman free kick, continues with Hrisovulos’ header across the goal mouth, and ends with a power-header by Carey. The second comes when Gross’ long cross is tipped away by the keeper, then ripped by Carey.
• Clawing their way to their 39th state tournament berth in 40 years – and still hoping to make the FCIAC tourney, possibly even capture the Central Division title – the Wreckers surge to 3 1-0 wins. They top 7-2 Central High on a 22nd-minute strike. Guadagno outlets to Wasserman, whose speed and fancy footwork keep the ball in play. He dribbles 30 yards and feeds Gross, who digs out the ball against a gritty defender and looks up to see a nearly empty net 20 yards away. He draws out keeper Oraine Ennis, then finishes beautifully for his first varsity tally. Bad luck strikes 7 minutes later, however, when Carey is upended and breaks his collarbone. The sophomore has played nicely, and his loss hurts. The match is called after 4 several late yellow cards to the Hilltoppers.
• The 1-0 Westhill win is far less physical. The Wreckers solve the bumpy, tiny field ("We should play 9-on-9 here," Lea jokes), and get the winner just 7:14 in. Martino, who sparks the squad both offensively and defensively, draws a foul, then rockets the direct kick from 20 yards off the keeper’s outstretched fingertips.
• The win streak nearly ends in Norwalk. The Bears are 3-8, but coach Ricky King (son of former mentor Ralph) has them pumped. The Wreckers, meanwhile, show the effects of their fifth match in 8 days. They start slowly, and by the time they catch fire it is nearly too late. Martino shows by example the importance of ranging far, playing solid defense, making devastating runs and laying off great passes. In the waning minutes he moves more forward. With less than 3 minutes to go Guadagno serves the best free kick of the day. Martino hesitates just enough, outleaps 2 defenders and drives a header high over the keepers’ futile jump.
• The 8-game win streak ends with a 1-1 draw in New Canaan. The 5-6-1 Rams, who have not lost by more than 1 goal all year, elect not to mark Martino; he wreaks havoc. In the 13th minute he knocks a free kick to Wasserman, who volleys it forward. Love digs it out and "rams" it in off the left post. Still, the Wreckers cannot put their hosts away, and the inability to finish kills them 7 minutes from time. Parrish Chin pounces on a loose ball 30 yards from goal, and cruises in to tie. Durst saves well in the hectic overtimes, and his confidence helps Staples realize this tie is not the end of the world.
• The dream of an FCIAC berth lasts until the final match of the regular season, against big, strong Trumbull. The game, played in a ferocious wind with the sun shining directly in the southerly keeper’s eyes, sees Staples give nothing away in heart and skill. The Golden Eagles get a strange strike in the 10th minute, when Mike Dusiewicz dumps a ball into the goalmouth that Durst reads well. Yet as he crouches for the low shot, it hops bizarrely over his head. Alex Sichel, Wolf and Love nearly equalize on a heart-stopping flurry, but each time the ball caroms away. Martino nets the tying score early in the second half, and Wolf and Gross nearly put their side ahead, but Dusiewicz’s diving header and James Samatulski’s direct kick blast just underneath the bar turn the tide. Stuart Low rifles a shot off the post late, and seniors Miguel Peman, John Bermudez, Chuck Hilman, Alex Eman and Darin McCollum apply good pressure at the end. The regular season ends again without an FCIAC spot – but far less disappointingly than the year before.
• For the second time in 11 days, Staples meets Trumbull in a do-or-die game. For the second time, the match is played at the Eagles’ field. For the second time, the hosts win. This time, however, the score is 1-0 – and it is far closer than that. With Durst solid in back, Guadagno a commanding presence at sweeper, and McWilliams and Matt Killian playing their best games in a Staples uniform, Trumbull enters halftime frustrated by the 0-0 score.
• Twelve minutes after intermission Durst saves and initiates a counterattack. Head’s early cross into the box is snagged by keeper Mark Pataky. He outlets to midfield, where a pair of Wreckers try to turn but slip on the wet grass. Jay Golesky seizes his brief moment of freedom, and blazes to goal. He railroads through 1 defender, then finishes low and hard to the right corner. Staples catches a break in the 59th minute when co-captain Dusiewicz is shown a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Wreckers show relentless pressure, and everyone wonders if this will be a mirror image of the previous year, when the Eagles forced overtime with 6 seconds and killed Staples in overtime.
• History does not repeat itself. Though Martino earns 3 late corner kicks late, and there are several goalmouth scrambles, the Wreckers’ season-long problem of not firing enough shots does them in.
• Martino and Guadagno make the All-FCIAC first team and are selected to play in the Senior Bowl, while Durst and Wolf are chosen for the All-Eastern Division squad. Martino becomes the first National Soccer Coaches Association All-America pick since Phil Moen in 1976. In the spring, he is named Gatorade Circle of Champions National High School Player of the Year.
• At the annual banquet, held at Continental Manor in Norwalk, Guadagno – the first Staples booter to play 4 years of varsity soccer – becomes the first Wrecker to receive the Block "S" Most Valuable Player award 2 years in a row. McWilliams earns the other Block "S" as Most Improved. Durst gets the Tom McMahon Scholarship, while Cass is honored with the Alumni Award – as was his brother Brendan 2 years before. Freshman Charlie Greenlee is chosen by junior Joe Benanati to receive the Stephen Martin Award. Guest speaker is Steve Uydess, former Staples and Wesleyan University captain.
CO-CAPTAINS: Ryan Durst, Bobby Guadagno
COACH: Jeff Lea
1999: JUST A YEAR AWAY…
• A 4-1 pre-season victory at Xavier-Middletown precedes another brutal early season schedule. This time they start with Trumbull – meaning Staples faces them 3 times in a row, counting the final 2 matches of ’98. They do it minus starting keeper Matt Katz, who sustains a head injury the day before opening day. Into the breach steps Chris Winkler, a freshman whose Staples soccer career spans all of 19 days. The tall, quiet ninth grader shows no signs of nerves, however, and the team gets a lift in the second minute when central midfielder Jon Love feeds Zack Gross. The junior cuts past 2 players, splits 2 more with his dribble, then slips the ball underneath keeper Mark Pataky.
• Trumbull retaliates twice, 7 and 8 minutes later. In between the Golden Eagles are shown the first of 4 yellow cards (1 player receives 2, and is ejected). Try as they might, the Wreckers cannot take advantage – until, with less than a minute to go, Matt Hendrickson carries upfield and is tackled hard. The ball pops backward, to Love. He flicks with the outside of his foot to Charlie Perlwitz. The freshman’s shot through a crowd hits the far post, and bangs into the back of the net. The come-from-behind 2-2 draw is, Staples hopes, a great harbinger.
• The auspicious start is followed by 8 idle days. The threat of Hurricane Floyd forces a delay by Darien (10 years earlier, they postponed due to the imminent arrival of Hurricane Hugo). Rain brings a 2-day postponement of the Fairfield match, and a day of training is lost to Yom Kippur. The Mustangs ride an early goal to a 1-0 win; 24 hours later, nursing injuries from Fairfield, Staples again fails to score, falling 2-0 to Stamford.
• The long-dormant attack explodes on Ridgefield’s narrow, poorly lit football field. The Wreckers arrive with purpose, and open with the vise-like defense and 1- and 2-touch passing that for 40 years were Staples hallmarks. In the 10th minute Gross wins a ball near midfield, then touches backwards to Jim Wolf. The sweeper beats 2 defenders and dishes off to Gross, who turns and rips. The galvanizing goal gets Gross going – as well as Love, Mike Carey and Kris Hrisovulos, who turn in their best games ever.
• In the 34th minute Hrisovulos drives a cross deep into the goalmouth. Anthony Castelluccio moves it along to Alex Wasserman, who stuffs it home. The final tally is the prettiest of the 3. Love, Carey and freshman Zach Schwarz work the ball upfield; Wolf overlaps, before finishing hard to the far corner.
• Danbury’s 3-1 victory is deceptive. The Wreckers play well enough to win – Hatter coach Gary Donaldson agrees – and even snag the first goal 3 minutes in, when Hendrickson first-times Perlwitz’s square ball from 25. But Danbury draws even after Katz tries to tip a high shot over the top. The ball hits the face of the crossbar, caroms back on the field and is headed in. Ten minutes later Wolf turns at the top of the arc and, attempting to play back to the keeper, chips into his own net. The insurance score comes midway through the first half, when an unmarked Machedo nods in a corner kick.
• The Harding match is postponed when the Wreckers travel to Bridgeport, only to find the field unplayable. The next day in Westport the Presidents, having a fine season, score off a set piece. But Staples retaliates after halftime. Tyler Head’s shot crashes off the crossbar. Castelluccio, a former football player, chests it down and in. Wolf, Head, Matt Killian and Brandon Lamb are coming together as a defensive unit; behind them, Katz shines.
• Harding ushers in a tough span of 4 games in 6 days. Staples bops Bassick 5-0, then – playing for the third time in as many days – overcomes fatigue and Darien to win 1-0 on a Wasserman shot. They entertain a Columbus Day hillside crowd by whipping Westhill – a squad that beat Danbury – 5-1.
• Staples outshoots Brien McMahon 25-6, and lead in corner kicks by an astonishing 14-2, but manages only a 1-1 draw. Wasserman’s goal is the bright spot in a match filled with poor midfield marking, lackadaisical defense and – after strong crosses and dangerous switches of field – too many shanks, whiffs and pitty-pats up front. Senator keeper John Bruno makes a game-saving tip of Kris Hrisovulos’s 25-yard screamer, and the 2 10-minute overtimes feature some of the most exciting chances the Wreckers have produced in years. Ultimately, however, no one scores; Westport News writer Dan Woog’s notes "more misses than at a debutante ball."
• The uncharacteristically quiet Wilton game is decided at 20:15, when Gross leaps high to knock Carey’s free kick forward. Wolf, the sweeper who moves up on free kicks, finishes with poise.
• Central is 2 games in 1. The first is a torrid affair, with 4 cards – 2 warnings and 2 ejections – shown to the Hilltoppers. The second is so mellow that one spectator calls it "an intrasquad scrimmage." Love records Staples’ first hat trick since 1993, pacing his club to a 5-1 win. It appears likely, however, that the Wreckers will finish exactly as they did the previous year: fifth in the FCIAC, 1 place away from a playoff berth.
• Staples’ 9-0 drubbing of Trinity Catholic represents their greatest offensive effort since 1994. The game marks the first varsity start for sophomore Brendan Nangle; Carey’s 17th birthday; the varsity debuts of sophomore John Gustafson and freshman Chris Sharpe; a 10-minute turn on the field for Katz (Castelluccio covered goal), and the officiating of junior varsity coach James Crespo, replacing a missing referee (with the Crusaders’ consent).
• Coach Jeff Lea challenges his boys to give their best shot in the season finale against New Canaan, to gain momentum for the state LL tournament. They cede the first goal to Parrish Chin, then rally in the second half to win 3-1. Wasserman gets the equalizer, from Carey. Love rips a 30-yard shot, assisted by Nangle; then Schwarz nets his third goal in 2 games.
• Since the Ridgefield win, Staples has gone 9-2-1. They enter the state tournament with confidence. But their first opponent – Ridgefield – has been on its own tear. They believe their 1-sided loss was an aberration: It was their fourth match in 5 days, and they were missing star striker Dan Ribeiro. They shoot out of the gate at Staples, and tally 27 seconds after the opening whistle. Katz punches the first shot aside, but the ball ricochets off a Ridgefield knee into the empty net.
• The Tigers add another tally 14 minutes later, when Brendan Vick buries a penalty kick awarded for a late hit. They catch a break when the Wreckers shank a PK of their own, and hang on for a 2-1 victory.
• The hosts have their chances. With the score 1-0 Wasserman’s diving header sails wide, Hendrickson misses by inches and Love heads over the bar. The match heats up in the final 10 minutes when Wolf sends Hendrickson through, slicing the margin in half. Staples plays passionate ball in those waning moments, and a goalmouth scrum nearly produces the equalizer. But for the second year in a row they exit the state tournament in the first round – both times to an FCIAC foe.
• The original state tournament draw has Staples #11, after Fairfield forfeits due to an ineligible player. The Wreckers are set to met #22 E.O. Smith-Storrs, until the Mustangs win their appeal. Ridgefield drops from 16 to 17, loses a home game – but ends up a winner.
• Dave Harrison retires after 20 seasons as Staples timer (and social studies instructor).
• Wolf is the lone Wrecker to earn All-FCIAC honors. He, Carey and Gross are named All-Eastern Division.
• Geoff Wheeler, head coach at Wesleyan University, is guest speaker at the Continental Manor banquet. Love earns the Staples Block "S" coaches award, Katz is voted Most Valuable Player by his teammates, and Head receives the Alumni Award.
• Other players not previously mentioned include Dan Alix, Alex Geringer and Jordan Schur.
• Perlwitz’s father, Charlie Sr., starred on the 1974 team.
CO-CAPTAINS: Jon Love, Jim Wolf
COACH: Jeff Lea
2000: A RECORD-SETTING START TO THE MILLENNIUM
• The Wreckers won 3 state championships in the 1960s, 5 in the ‘70s, 2 in the ‘80s and 1 in the ‘90s. In the first year of the ‘00s, Staples has as good a shot at title #12 as they’ve had in years. A senior-laden, highly committed squad gathers, driven by memories of 2 underachieving seasons, and honed by a Westport Soccer Association European trip in which they won the Italy Cup, finished third at Spain’s Copa Catalunya, and won the Fair Play trophy to boot. With the FCIAC schedule expanded to 16 games, anything can happen.
• The season opens with a nail-biter against Norwalk. Through 2 regulation halves and all but 1:58 of overtime, no one scores. As the sun slips behind the Staples hill, ’00’s first match looks like a repeat of ‘99’s. But the seniors will not be denied, and their spirit carries the underclassmen along. Sophomore midfielder Zach Schwarz roams wide to win a ball and feeds junior Brendan Nangle, parked in the goalmouth. With no angle he flicks along to Matt Hendrickson, crashing strongly. He celebrates his 17th birthday with a low, hard shot. For the first time all game, keeper Tom Haff cannot field it cleanly. He gives a rebound on the far right side. Junior Alex Lorusso, who has seen only spot action, takes 2 steps forward, then slots the ball between Haff and the near post with the poise of a veteran. Defender Matt Killian screams "Dear God!" – but the ball goes in unaided.
• Payback time begins with Trumbull. Patiently, the Wreckers dismantle the Golden Eagles. The first goal comes 32 seconds before halftime. Alex Geringer’s long throw finds Jordan Schur, charging upfield from stopper. His through pass is redirected by a defender to Hendrickson, who slots low and hard. Staples is without Nangle (ankle injury); Schur’s ribs hurt, and sweeper Jim Wolf’s hamstring is bad. But keeper Matt Katz, who makes saving penalties look as routine as pre-game warmups, punches a PK out of danger, and Mike Carey soon gives his side a 2-0 lead. Brandon Lamb soon plays a high ball out of the defense to Zack Gross. The striker’s back is to the net but, in a move straight out of a training video, he takes it off his chest, drops it to his foot, then turns and volleys a 25-yard shot that screams under the bar. The season promises to be loads of fun.
• The Westporters travel to Danbury for as classic a match as any Wrecker-Hatter duel ever. A hard rain begins shortly after the opening whistle, and within minutes large puddles form. Every pass is an adventure. Yet Gross drives 50 yards from midfield to the left corner, then cuts a pass diagonally through the goalmouth. Charlie Perlwitz times his run perfectly, slicing through 2 defenders before finishing hard. It is exactly the play Staples worked on the day before.
• Four minutes later Jason Goncalves pounces on a puddle-stopped ball, and the teams are tied. Coach Jeff Lea’s rain-filled halftime message is simple: Start banging. Stopper Schur adds: "This is a battle, boys. It might get ugly. But it’ll come down to whoever wants it more, and it’s gotta be us." Seven minutes later Gross blazes again down the side, and delivers another pinpoint ball. This time sophomore Chris Sharpe taps it in. His first varsity goal comes 4 minutes after he steps on the field.
• Eight minutes later Carey sneaks into the defensive wall. Hendrickson chips over everyone’s head. Carey spins, gathers the pass in stride and drives a shot directly through the keeper’s legs. The goal is important; 14 minutes from time Goncalves heads home his second score, off a quick cross. But with Wolf anchoring the defense of Schur, Killian and Brandon Lamb, the Wreckers bang and run to perfection, right to the end. They dive gleefully, and exhaustedly, onto the soaked turf. And they make sure to thank Katz, the man of the match whose key saves include a tip over the top, and a full-body-extension punch to the side.
• After 2 easy shutouts, Staples gets good news: They are ranked 10th in the country and first in the state. But such hard-to-compare ratings have in the past thrown many teams off stride – including the Wreckers. This year is no exception. At 4:20 Nangle’s cross catches the wind, and loops in over the outstretched hands of Central keeper Helder Dos Santos. Fifteen minutes later, though, the Hilltoppers’ Tatiano Graca bulls through to score. It takes just 28 seconds for the Wreckers to strike back. Gross carries to the end line, then sends a cross back to the 12 – just like the previous day’s training. Schwarz leaps high to head it along. Fellow sophomore Perlwitz follows with a diving header, ending as both he and the ball tumble into the net.
• Each team earns a yellow card. Katz saves big on a breakaway. Central gets a second yellow; Schur is sidelined with a knee injury, and play is dead even. Katz comes up huge again, but with 5:21 to go the visitors’ star playmaker, Sanel Sandikovic, cruises through the left and feeds a wide-open Graca for his side’s second equalizer.
• This time it takes 153 seconds for the Wreckers to pull ahead. Carey carries 20 yards up the middle, then feeds a perfectly timed pass to Perlwitz. Central’s second keeper smothers the shot but cannot hold on. The Hilltoppers, besieged by Staples players, fail to clear. Nangle, who played excellently at 4 positions, is ready when the ball pops out of the scrum. He screams a shot in the corner – and soon the fans are screaming with delight.
• Perlwitz gives his side the early lead against Ridgefield, but Glenn Wilken intercepts a weak pass. After he equalizes, the 6 minutes before halftime are hectic. Wreckers snipe at each other on the field. Lea erupts in a rare display of anger, Schur adds his thoughts, and the Wreckers slowly regain the upper hand. Six minutes from time Nangle finds Carey at the edge of the box. He toys with 1 man, cuts past another, then zooms into space. As a defender closes in Carey slides a pass across the goal mouth. Schwarz, who has eluded his own marker, 1-touches it in with his left foot, to the far right side.
• The Wreckers look like world-beaters against a strong Greenwich side. They are so dominant, in fact, that when outside back Lamb continues to move forward with ease an exasperated Card yells, "Why does he keep coming through? He’s a defender!" Staples cannot score — but they remain confident. In overtime Greenwich, playing their second extra-time match in 3 days, tires. Six minutes into the first OT Schwarz plays a short corner to Carey. He slices a cross that at first seems likely to run past everyone. Yet Nangle slides through, drilling a shot the keeper never sees. One minute from time Hendrickson feeds Carey for the insurance tally. The 8-0 Wreckers have already secured a spot in the state LL tournament – the earliest possible date they could do so. Ghosts of seasons past start to fade.
• When the Wreckers shut out Stamford 2-0 (Hendrickson buries Nangle’s pass, and Gross squibs in the rebound of Lamb’s 50-yard ball), they are 10-0. No current player was alive in 1976, the last time a Staples team had such a record. The oldest were born in the fall of 1982. In ’76 Perlwitz’s father, Charlie Sr., was already starring at Yale University.
• At Westhill’s new home the Wreckers meet a top FCIAC team. The narrow width of the artificial turf football field plays to to the 8-1 Vikings’ advantage. But Staples – now fifth in the nation — adapts well, exploding for 3 goals in the first 28 minutes. First Carey nails a high, hard shot; keeper Dave Faugno gets a finger on it, and Perlwitz snags the rebound. Perlwitz gets the second, too, snapping a header of Schwarz’s free kick. Schwarz also strikes a 30-yard free kick that Carey rockets in with his head. All 3 goals came directly from the previous day’s training.
• The next strong foe to fall is Fairfield. Barely 3 minutes in Carey laces a waist-high cross that Perlwitz chests down to his foot, then bangs in through a gaggle of defenders. With defenders Wolf, Schur, Lamb and Killian – and of course keeper Katz — standing tall against the quick Mustangs, the coup de grace comes 12 minutes from time. Nangle rips a shot off the left goalpost; Perlwitz pounces, for his second straight 2-goal game.
• The Brien McMahon match starts poorly, and barely 7 minutes in the Senators draw level, 1-1. But Staples pulls ahead, lengthening their lead to 6-1. After showing the visitors 3 yellow cards and 1 red the referees terminate the match with 1:45 remaining, to prevent further McMahon mayhem. Staples is 13-0-0, equaling the school’s best start since 1969.
• Lea has just 13 available players against Darien. But he gets goals from Lorusso, Lamb, Hendrickson and Carey. The 4-0 win puts the winners in the history book: Only 1 other team in Staples history (1965) has opened the season with 14 straight wins.
• Two obstacles remain before an unprecedented 16-0-0 regular season. The first is Wilton, away. As usual, the Warriors fight fiercely. At halftime Lea instructs central midfielder Carey, saddled with 2 and 3 markers, to lay the ball off quicker. He does, and no defender can cope with his 1- and 2-touch skills. Nine minutes past intermission Wolf wins a bone-crunching tackle and feeds Gross, who earns Staples’ first corner kick of the day.
• Hendrickson launches a dangerous ball into the goal mouth. Schur is the first Wrecker there; then Lamb takes charge. The tall defender outjumps 2 Warriors, and heads down and hard with so much power, the ball bounces up and into the top netting. It is as pretty as his first goal of the season, 4 days earlier. Wilton applies strong pressure to the end, but Staples is battle-tested. They know how to preserve the shutout – and they do.
• New Canaan is anticlimactic. The Westporters win 2-0, celebrate the first 16-0-0 regular season (the undefeated and untied 1965, ’67 and ’69 squads played fewer games), and immediately turn their sights on the FCIAC tournament. Not one current player has ever been in the finals – or even played a semifinal match.
• The lack of county playoff experience hardly fazes the Wreckers. They shrug off raw, blustery weather at Albie Loeffler Field and take command from the start. They thrill the large crowd with pinpoint passing, beautiful ball control and defensive domination. Attacking into the 30-mile per hour wind in the first half, they keep the ball on the ground for 4-, 6-, even 8-pass sequences. The first goal begins when Nangle finds Gross with a through ball on the defensive side of midfield. He outraces 1 defender, zeroes in on goal and finishes perfectly, drawing the keeper off the line before accelerating and ramming low. It is a sweet score for Gross, who has dug out dozens of balls all year but seen his own goal production limited.
• He likes scoring so much, he nets the insurance 1. It too is a beauty. It comes in the 58th minute, after Schwarz sends a long free kick across the box. Hendrickson works hard to keep it in play, then drives a cross back to the left. With a great second effort, Gross left-foots a volley. Katz’s 13th shutout is one of his easiest: He handles 2 shots all game.
• Next up: the title game. Despite never playing in an FCIAC final, the Wreckers look like veterans. So does Westhill. The Vikes are in their first FCIAC title match ever (Staples is shooting for its 23rd championship in 29 attempts) – but the Stamford side has a secret weapon, midfielder Edwin Miranda. The Ecuadorian is making only his second start – he was held out until his eligibility was confirmed, and did not play in the Wreckers’ 3-1 win – but immediately puts his mark on the match.
• The game thrills the large crowd at Wilton High School’s football field; the wild, end-to-end duel has something for everyone. Westhill’s fans cheer first, in the 11th minute, when Miranda gathers a ball 40 yards from goal, carries right, then laces a no-warning shot into the upper left corner. Remarkably, it is the first time all year – in 17 games — that Staples trails.
• They shake off the shock, and in the 32nd minute draw even. Carey takes Killian’s throw and dribbles by 3 men, creating space on the right for Hendrickson. He quickly sends Carey’s feed back through the goalmouth. Nangle slips between 2 backs, and left-foots a volley from 6.
• Eleven minutes after halftime, the Vikes strike again. John Ruiz nails a breakaway – but is sent off during the celebration for unsportsmanlike conduct. Seconds later, what should be a boon for Staples turns sour. Wolf earns a yellow of his own, and the Wreckers spend the next 9 minutes on their heels. But they finally cross midfield, and when Hendrickson takes a throw-in they pounce. Perlwitz emerges the hero in a goal box scramble, somehow redirecting a bouncing ball past keeper Faugno.
• The final 20 minutes of regulation play, plus 20 of overtime, feature Wolf and his tenacious defenders Killian, Lamb and Schur shutting down Miranda and Ruiz with speed and strength, though not easily. Perlwitz, Nangle, Gross and Lorusso dig out balls with abandon, but Westhill’s defense is solid. The teams match each other shot for shot, tackle for tackle, save for save. It is like the "Rocky IV" movie Staples saw that afternoon at Carey’s house, to psych themselves up. Two minutes from the end, Lamb plays a free kick to Carey, who dishes to Perlwitz on the goal line. The sophomore’s off-balance shot skitters tantalizingly wide.
• The final horn sounds seconds later. The Wreckers slump, devastated, on the field; their foes, equally exhausted, rejoice. It is a scene previous Staples teams know well – the empty feeling of earning a co-championship. This time the agony is compounded; the "perfect" season has been blemished by a draw. A bigger prize, however, awaits.
• Ranked first in the LL division, the Wreckers enjoy a first-round bye, then dispose of Xavier-Middletown 4-0 at home. The match is noteworthy only for being the first-ever state tourney victory for the current crop of Stapleites, and because win #18 equals the total number of victories in the previous 2 years combined. Perlwitz slams a shot in off the left post; Lorusso causes an own goal; Wolf sends Hendrickson, and Carey tucks Lorusso’s deft feed across the box. Sharpe, Alex Geringer and Noah Dinkin just miss scoring in the final minutes. Looking strong are junior varsity booters Jason Alvarez, Mike White, Ross Cunningham and Jason Aster.
• Ninth-ranked quarterfinalist West Haven cedes two-thirds of the field to their hosts. The Westies deploy 9 defenders – but they also have 6-4 keeper Ed Leigh, who led them to a first-round penalty kick victory and a second-round 1-0 shutout. He – not the field made slippery after a day of rain (and the team’s first postponement of the season) – proves to be Staples’ biggest worry.
• Leigh’s counterpart, Katz, comes up large several times, including an early punch on Nick Wajnowski after 2 defenders slip on the grass. The Wreckers adapt well to the difficult conditions, and create numerous chances. With 20 minutes to go Lea puts Lamb – playing on guts, because of a badly ailing back – up front. He, Perlwitz and Gross run down every loose ball, keeping play deep in West Haven’s end. But it is the Westies who come closest in the first overtime, when Wajnowski races through two slipping defenders, and bangs a seemingly innocuous shot off the left goalpost onto the field. The Wreckers, aroused, clear, and go on the attack.
• A minute later Lorusso sends a long cross from the right. Gross, 20 yards out, chests it forward – a move he knows well from pre-practice games of soccer tennis. He follows the bouncing ball, and lofts a shot across his body to the far post. It grazes off a defender’s hip, changes direction slightly, hits the inside of the left post, spins wildly, and eventually carries into the back of the net. It is a "golden goal" – just like, the history-minded Wreckers know, so many previous teams have scored.
• And then comes the semifinals. The game, set for Joel Barlow High’s Falcon Field, should never have been played. It is the only CIAC state tourney match not postponed on this night of monsoons and fog. But the site director, Barlow’s athletic director, refuses to yield. As every soccer fan knows, bad weather favors a lesser-skilled team. Fairfield proves the adage right.
• Both teams handle the skips and skids well in the early going, and in the 16th minute Staples strikes gold. Schwarz’s free kick across the goal mouth is headed back by Hendrickson. Gross emerges from the crowd, to smack the loose ball in through the chaos.
• The action heats up. Fairfield’s Steve Balgach drives baseline, slamming a shot off the post. Less than a minute later Kevin Miranda’s shot is even more true, as he finishes a fine feed from Andrew Troncone. The Mustangs spend the rest of the half with 60-40 control, thanks to their domination of midfield and hard-clearing back 4. Three minutes before halftime Katz corrals a crazily bouncing ball; 2 minutes later, Staples’ first serious shot since their goal sails wide.
• As the second half begins – after Fairfield coach Ted Merrill told his team to look out on the mist-filled "field of dreams" — Lamb’s bad back finally forces him to the sidelines. The rain begins again, this time in earnest; a strong wind kicks up into the Wreckers’ faces. Just 5 minutes in, Alex Ostrowski’s wicked corner kick curls inward. Katz comes forward to punch, but the wet ball skitters off his hands into the side netting. The Wreckers are down, 2-1.
• For 35 minutes they give their best shot. However, the Mustangs protect their hard-won lead with tenacity. The match ends as Fairfield’s Kevin Rondeau dribbles into the Westport end. The Mustangs celebrate wildly, as well they should; they have just handed the number 3 team in the nation its first loss all year, at the same time advancing further than any Fairfield squad ever. The Wreckers slump miserably, in the wind and the rain. It is a bitter, almost tragic, end to a magical start to a new millennium.
• The Wreckers’ #3 U.S. ranking is the highest spot they have ever achieved in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll.
• Staples’ #1 state tournament rating was their first since 1972. That team reeled off 18 straight victories after a season-opening tie, en route to a state championship. With 17 consecutive wins, this year’s squad falls 1 shy of the mark. Their 19 wins equals the most ever for a Staples team (the ’96 state finalists were 19-1-2).
• Gross, Carey, Wolf and Lamb are named All-FCIAC players; Katz makes the All-Division team.
• Veteran FCIAC coaches Gary Donaldson (Danbury) and Ralph Vitale (Greenwich) announce their retirements.
• The junior varsity, coached by former Staples and Wesleyan University star Eric Steffen, end 8-1-4. The freshmen, led by experienced youth coach Bob Pollock, are 10-1-2.
• This season sees the first use of the Albie Loeffler Field scoreboard, whose installation was spearheaded by retired social studies teacher Dave Harrison. He is presented with a plaque by new athletic director Marty Lisevick.
• Central has a player named Tennessee Williams. Brien McMahon is coached by Whitey Budreckas, who as Wilton High’s girls varsity coach had a player named Kristine Lilly.
• Andrew Udell (Lehigh University ’92) is named to the Patriot League All-Decade team.
• Dinkin lands a job as an intern at dogsname.com, the company founded by Luke Scott ’91, and helps develop the StaplesSoccer.com website.
CO-CAPTAINS: Mike Carey, Jim Wolf
COACH: Jeff Lea
2001: A STELLAR SEASON, THEN PENALTY KICKS
• Though veteran head coach Jeff Lea is fond of talking about reloading, not rebuilding, only the most optimistic observers expect a repeat of 2000. Eight starters have graduated, and only 3 Wreckers — senior captain Brendan Nangle and juniors Zach Schwarz and Charlie Perlwitz — have seen substantial varsity time. But sometime between the end of last season and the beginning of this the ’01 squad stops listening to the nay-sayers, and starts believing in themselves. Over 50 boys turn out for the first day of pre-season, and after knocking off Xavier-Middletown (3-1) and Brunswick-Greenwich (3-0) in scrimmages, they are ready to begin where the previous squad left off.
• The first opportunity comes against Wilton. A starting 11 of 4 seniors, 5 juniors and 2 sophomores welcomes the Warriors to Albie Loeffler Field with a 4-0 pasting. It takes just 5:27 for the crisp-passing Westporters to strike, as Schwarz assists classmate and fellow midfielder Jason Alvarez. Three minutes later Perlwitz picks up a long clear from Alex Lorusso, and caroms in a shot off both the underside of the crossbar and the left post. Schwarz finishes the day with 2 more tallies.
• The next match, played on Norwalk’s new, wet but excellent FieldTurf Sam Testa Field, is a good one against another up-and-coming young team. After playing a too-quick first half — blame the lights, the 7-day layoff and the Bears’ own tempo — the Wreckers dominate the second. Jason Aster is the first Stapleite to slow things down and wait for help; his teammates pick up the cue, and in the 48th minute he bulls in a great baseline ball from Perlwitz. Five minutes later Lorusso feeds Aster, whose 30-yard ball catches the keeper unaware. With Schwarz and Alvarez controlling the tempo at midfield the Westporters wear Norwalk down, and Schwarz adds a 3rd tally.
• A pesky St. Joseph side falls 1-0, on a 14th-minute rebound shot by Schwarz. The next match, against New Canaan, features a new lineup. Sophomore Charlie Stoebe starts at right back; Dave Rotatori shifts left, paired with another soph, Trevor Lamb, and Lorusso moves up to right midfield. The changes show almost immediately, as the Wreckers play fine 1- and 2-touch soccer all day. Alvarez and Schwarz stake their side to a 2-0 lead. The Rams end Staples’ 340-minute scoreless streak, but keeper Chris Winkler comes up with his 2 best saves of the year, and after halftime the blue-and-whites pour it on. Alvarez finishes Schwarz’s seeing-eye diagonal ball, for a 3-1 win.
• Greenwich, away, is a muddy affair. The Wreckers adapt well, but not until the first 10-minute overtime do they solve Card sweeper Giovanni Batista and his backs. Aster slices a ball left to right. Lorusso touches it twice, then hits Alvarez through a crowd. The midfielder has struggled all day but this time controls well, plows through 2 defenders, draws the other backs out, then scuffs in the biggest goal of his career.
• Just 24 hours later the conditions are completely different: Astroturfed, cement-based Kennedy Stadium. Central, 4-2, plays a physical game, and the Wreckers feel frustrated. They play well but cannot get the final pass through, or launch a telling shot. The halftime theme is: Don’t worry. We’ve been here before. It doesn’t matter who gets the goal, or when it comes. Just 2:18 after intermission, the advice proves sound. Stoebe picks off a long Hilltopper clear and finds Alvarez on the left. The midfielder takes his man to town, then rifles a cross/shot that the keeper parries. Aster is there to slam the rebound home. Relaxed now, Chris Sharpe and and Schwarz close out the scoring.
• Two days after that, conditions again change. Staples travels to Ridgefield’s large, lush field, and find a mirror image of themselves. The 5-3 Tigers knock the ball back, square and forward with confidence; their central midfielders have touch and vision, and they defend with their lives. But this time the Wreckers break, falling 3-0 in their first poor performance of the year. The loss ends a remarkable streak: Beginning with the final 4 games of the 1999 regular season, continuing through all 16 FCIAC matches of 2000, and through the first 7 of ’01, Staples has reeled off 27 consecutive regular season wins. That shatters the previous mark of 19, set in 1975-76.
• The loss to Ridgefield shatters Staples’ confidence, but also steels their resolve. Five days later they face 5-3 — and surging — Danbury, and do so without their captain and sweeper sparkplug Nangle. The previous day, in practice, he received a concussion. But the Hatters are missing Region I player Joe Dos Santos, so both teams make adjustments. Lea moves stopper Alex Geringer back to sweeper; Stoebe stops, and Lorusso defends. The entire squad ratchets their game up a notch, and a mere 5:32 in Schwarz’s long free kick to the left finds Lamb. He saves it on the end line, sends a cross into the goalmouth, and in heavy flailage midfielder Noah Dinkin fires for his first varsity goal. Geringer, Schwarz, Stoebe, Lorusso and Rotatori key the defense, Aster and Perlwitz continue to apply pressure and Winkler makes a few fine saves, as the Wreckers up their record to 8-1.
• Trinity Catholic offers typically listless opposition in a 5-0 Staples victory, then Lamb and Perlwitz score in a 2-0 defeat on Stamford’s rock pile. That brings a long-anticipated rematch with Westhill. The Vikings have built upon last fall’s FCIAC co-championship, blazing to an 11-0-1 regular season mark. The Albie Loeffler Field contest between the league’s top 2 teams lives up to its billing. Perlwitz and Aster bedevil the backs; Schwarz and Alvarez go toe-to-toe with midfield counterparts Edwin Miranda and Seth Glatzer; Lorusso, Lamb and Dinkin are patient yet aggressive on the flanks; Geringer stays home well at stopper; Rotatori and Stoebe play beyond their sophomore years defensively; Nangle is a rock at sweeper, leading by example and guts, and behind them all Winkler, tested several times, comes up huge.
• Ten minutes into the second half fleet striker Ian Sloss draws first blood. Like 11 months earlier, however, the Wreckers roar back. A Viking defender plays the ball back to keeper David Faugno; Perlwitz pressures, and when Faugno hesitates Schwarz pounces. He reaches the ball first, immediately unleashing a shot into an empty net. The rest of regulation and 2 overtimes features nonstop action, but the game ends a satisfying 1-1 draw.
• Forty-eight hours later, at the start of Homecoming Weekend, Fairfield comes to town. Once again the hill is packed. The Mustangs start quickly, as they usually do. Their style of play is not elegant, but knocks the blue-and-whites off their stride. Staples settles down in the second 40 minutes, stringing passes together in elegant 4- and 5-pass sequences. However, reminiscent of last year’s class LL semifinal, Fairfield scores off an inswinging corner kick. The Westporters, aroused, come right back. It takes them nearly to the end, though — the 75th minute — to draw level. Geringer redirects Schwarz’s corner low, and Christian Hektoen, a junior transfer from Norway inserted just 15 seconds earlier by Lea, thighs it in through a crowd for his first varsity score. The game grows even hotter in OT, though neither team manages a tally. The highlight — even more than Winkler’s excellent saves — is a tackle that sends Dinkin flying into orbit. True to form, he wins the ball.
• After so many tough matches, the Wreckers might be forgiven for complacency at 0-13 Harding. The Presidents tie it after Chris Sharpe’s goal, but a long shot by Lamb helps Staples escape 2-1. Brien McMahon is next. They are 6-6-1 but on a 6-game win streak, and the match is played on their tiny, bumpy football field. The Wreckers are minus Aster (strep throat), and Nangle exits early with a bad knee. Sharpe scuffs a ball in, but in the 26th minute Devin Calloway counters with a penalty kick. The officials lose control of the match, and midway through the second half the Senators snag the lead on a counterattack. With 10 minutes to play Lea sends in backup keeper Jay Ross, and inserts Winkler up front. It is, the coach says, the first time he has ever done that in a close game. Barely 1 minute later the erstwhile goalie redirects a pass to Alvarez, who stubs it in. McMahon comes right back, forcing Ross into four huge saves, 2 on point-blank shots. For the 3rd time in 4 games, the Wreckers head to overtime.
• Just 45 seconds in Lorusso feeds Perlwitz, 25 yards from goal. He turns and drills a lightning-quick side volley into the far netting. Celebrating deliriously, the two butt heads — and Perlwitz leaves for good, with a broken nose. His strike, however, inspires his teammates, and with Winkler keying the attack, Alvarez and Sharpe close out the scoring for a bizarre 5-2 overtime win. Staples ends the regular season 13-1-2 with a thoroughly forgettable 6-0 romp over Darien.
• The latest chapter in the intense Fairfield rivalry, played at Albie Loeffler Field in the FCIAC semifinals, is strangely subdued. The Wreckers outshoot the Mustangs 25-6 and lead in corner kicks 6-4, but 100 minutes fails to produce a winner. For the first time ever in the FCIACs, Staples heads to penalty kicks.
• As they did in the previous year’s semis, which also went to penalties, Fairfield replaces keeper Travis Leavy. Winkler saves Doug Lambert’s first shot, but Leavy’s replacement Alex Sweeney stops Perlwitz’s kick up the middle. Tim Henry scores left, yet Sweeney cannot stop Schwarz’s shot to the left. Winkler makes his 2nd save in 3 attempts on Stephen Balgach, but Nangle misses by a few inches, wide right. Kevin Rondeau buries his ball to the right corner; Dinkin responds by lazily circling around for his shot before placing it to the far right. After 4 shots, the score stands 2-2.
• Marc Niznansky places the ball solidly to the right corner. Alvarez steps confidently up — and Sweeney comes through with a big-time save. The FCIAC rematch with Westhill will not happen.
• Ranked #5, the Wreckers host #28, 7-6-3 Trumbull — the only FCIAC team they have not played all year. The 8-day layoff shows, and the passionless Stapleites — facing a brutal headwind — let the Eagles draw first blood 15 minutes in. In the 32nd minute, though, Schwarz curls an inswinging corner into the far netting. Just 9 seconds before intermission, he strikes a nearly identical corner. This time Aster distracts keeper Bruce Bernhard, and once again the ball carries in. The second half sees much better soccer. Perlwitz and Sharpe finish the scoring in the 4-1 pasting.
• That brings on #12, 12-3-2 South Windsor, for their first-ever meeting with Staples. The Bobcats arrive woefully late; the 2 p.m. kickoff is pushed back to 2:30. The upstaters are exactly what the scouting report says: senior-dominated, physically strong, solid in back with an excellent keeper, but not outstanding on the ball. The key to the match becomes goalie James Ohliger, who snags the few tough first-half chances the hosts create.
• Action heats up in the second half, but Ohliger is always there. With 10:03 to play in regulation the Wreckers are shown only their second yellow card of the year; stopper Geringer is sent off for kicking the ball away on a Bobcat free kick. This derails Staples’ momentum until overtime — which, unlike regulation, is golden goal. The blue-and-whites have their chances, but Ohliger comes up big. Staples leads in shots 26-7 and corner kicks 6-1, but for the 2nd time in 11 days the Wreckers ready themselves for penalty kicks.
• For the 2nd time, they shoot 2nd. South Windsor’s 1st kick is good left; Perlwitz misses wide right. The Bobcats’ 2nd man finds the back netting; Schwarz delivers a rip that Ohliger touches but cannot save. The guests’ 3rd kicker also hits the far left corner; Nangle blasts his ball into the far right side.
• South Windsor’s 4th player is also true left. Dinkin, who scored against Fairfield and never misses in practices, circles the ball — but this time goes wide right. The Bobcats pour onto the field. The Wreckers slump in agony. Their season is suddenly done. And though they played better, won more games and showed greater heart than anyone imagined in August, they trudge up the hill knowing that, for the rest of their lives, they will detest penalty kicks.
• The annual banquet, held at Riverview Manor in Norwalk, features Union College head coach Jeff Guinn as guest speaker. Brendan Nangle win the Block "S" as Most Valuable Player; Jason Aster earns the Block "S" for Most Improved. Jay Ross captures the Alumni Award, while Justin Raphael is named FCIAC Scholar-Athlete….
• Zach Schwarz is named All-State by both the SNET Connecticut High School Coaches Association and the Connecticut Soccer Coaches Association. Nangle, Schwarz and Charlie Perlwitz are chosen for the Connecticut Post "Super 15" All-Area team. Nangle is named All-Hour MVP; Schwarz, Perlwitz, Chris Winkler and Jason Alvarez make the Hour‘s All-Area squad. Nangle is selected for the Senior Bowl. Nangle, Schwarz, Winkler and Perlwitz are voted onto the All-FCIAC team.
• Coach Tip Vilay’s junior varsity end the season at 6-5-1. Matt Bachman is the leading point scorer, while keeper Callan Mintz wins the most "Game MVP" awards and Dan Eidman is named overall MVP….
• The freshmen of coach Mark Boynton finish 11-2-1. David King wins the Stephen Martin Award…
• Westhill downs Fairfield 3-0 in the FCIAC finals, while Naugatuck captures the state class LL crown….
CAPTAIN: Brendan Nangle
COACH: Jeff Lea
2002: TIES, TIES AND MORE TIES
• Nearly 60 boys show up for the first day of training. Included are a pair of junior transfers from near and far: Rob Paniccia (Greens Farms Academy) and Wayne Tentler (South Africa). In pre-season the Wreckers dispose of Xavier-Middletown 2-1, Amity-Woodbridge 8-1, and Brunswick Academy 2-1. Hopes are high for ’02.
• The opening match at Trumbull is postponed (their school is closed following a windstorm), and the Wreckers are antsy. They travel to hot, humid Kristine Lilly Field in Wilton, and go hard for 80 minutes — plus 20 more of overtime. Following early nerves, they settle down well. Seniors Zach Schwarz and Jason Alvarez key good central midfield movement, augmented on the flank by junior Trevor Lamb and sophomore Chris Meinke. The Wreckers outshoot their hosts 35-6, and earn 11 corner kicks to the Warriors’ 0. But Staples’ traditional bugaboo — the inability to finish in the box — bites them again. Their shots fly high, are tapped wide or are saved by excellent keeper Ed Fennessey. The match ends a scoreless draw.
• The first goal of ’02 comes in the 33rd minutes at Trumbull, when Alvarez feeds Lamb. Staples pressures well, but just 7:06 from time the Golden Eagles knot the score off a mis-clear. The blue-and-whites never panic, and get the game-winner 3:21 later. Schwarz slices his 6th corner of the afternoon into the box, and 6-3 sweeper Charlie Stoebe outleaps everyone to flick-head it in.
• The Wreckers take advantage of New Canaan’s lush Connor Field, and the Rams’ long lack of success against Staples (1 win in 44 years). Alvarez’s pretty but patient 37th-minute tally avoids his team’s 3rd consecutive scoreless 1st half. That is the only goal for the low-scoring, seldom-shooting Wreckers.
• And it provides an interesting lead-up to the long-awaited Norwalk match, Staples’ 1st home contest of the fall. The 3-0 Bears mirror their hosts: a talented squad with a nice blend of seniors, juniors and sophomores; a solid defense, stellar midfield and strong chance at an FCIAC title. The Westporters, however, miss senior co-captain Chris Winkler; the keeper tore his medial collateral ligament in the final minutes against New Canaan after falling awkwardly (no contact). Junior Cal Mintz takes over. The game flows back and forth, like chess. Staples’ defenders Stoebe and Dave Rotatori (juniors) and Jon Zimmerman and Nick Renzulli (sophs) hold dangerous Drew Melitsanopoulos and mates at bay. At halftime coach Jeff Lea stresses more 2-touch passing, but his team’s attention is diverted 5 minutes later when Meinke — a steady, talented presence — falls and breaks 2 bones in his arm. Mintz saves a bullet, and with 2 minutes remaining before overtime Schwarz’s great shot is stopped. Chaos prevails in the goalmouth. With the keeper out the ball spurts to midfielder Matt Bachman, who misses wide.
• The Westporters control much of the first 10-minute OT, but by the 2nd the effects of 3 games in 4 days is clear. Norwalk storms forward, but Staples repels the attacks. Mintz makes what appears to be his final save with 20 seconds to go — yet the Bears get one final chance. They slice their way goalward, and with a mere 6 seconds left Steve Cenatiempo’s desperate effort finds the lower-left corner. It is an excruciating loss.
• Harding arrives late but provides welcome relief, in the form of a 6-0 Wrecker victory. Two days later another winless Bridgeport side surrenders another 6 goals. It is an odd match, featuring 1 own goal, 3 penalty kicks, and a Lion who is shown a yellow card, manages to remain on the field 3 more minutes, then tries to re-enter after only 3 minutes on the sideline.
• Greenwich is a far sterner test. Staples is without Winkler, Meinke and Schwarz, who suffered an MCL sprain when chopped from behind against Harding. The visiting Cardinals dominate play, but their finishing is as spotty as their hosts’. The Wreckers score against the run of play in the 27th minute — on their first shot of the day. Alvarez dishes off to a wide-open Colin Nangle. The freshman looks as cool as his recently graduated brother Brendan, taking 2 touches before rifling past the helpless keeper. Greenwich continues to pound, giving Mintz several opportunities for key saves. Suddenly, 32 seconds before halftime, Ryan Sherwin’s long throw is headed goalward. Rafe Pezende outleaps everyone to nod it home with a second head.
• The 2nd half is better, and in the 66th minute the surge pays off. Senior Chris Sharpe rips a shot off the post; Nangle smacks the rebound off the keeper, and in a chaos-filled box junior Tristan Egusa finishes hard. Sensing victory, the defense — now including Tentler, with Renzulli at midfield — tightens up. Staples owns the play — until 15 seconds are left. Then comes deja vu all over again. The Cards scramble to get a corner kick in play; though all 11 Wreckers are back, Yu Washita finds net. For the 2nd time this game, and 3rd this year, Staples is stunned by a late tally. They rally for overtime, but are depleted: Nangle has a jammed toe, Sharpe is dizzy, and Charlie Perlwitz still feels the effect of a parasite picked up over the summer in Chile. The first OT ends ominously. Mintz, under tremendous physical and psychological pressure, saves well. In the 2nd OT Staples’ shot appears to cross the line, but is quickly booted out by Greenwich. Alvarez then misses by inches; he takes another corner, which hits Perlwitz and rolls out of bounds.
• But the match is not yet over. With 5 seconds — ! — the Cards fire. Mintz, perfectly positioned, saves nicely. It is an odd match. The Wreckers play quite well, especially considering all their ailments. But their inability to hold a lead, literally in the last seconds, leaves them frustrated and unsatisfied.
• For the first time ever, a Staples-St. Joseph game looms large. The 5-2 Cadets feel they have a legitimate shot at beating the 4-1-2 Wreckers, giving the Trumbull side legitimacy they never had; meanwhile the Westporters are in a logjam of 7 teams fighting for 4 FCIAC playoff berths. Through much of the first half the host Cadets look like St. Joe’s of old; they bang forward on their small, bumpy field. Staples is buoyed by Schwarz’s return — complete with knee brace. Yet the Westporters cannot produce shots. The lone tally comes 6 minutes into the 2nd half — from the Cadets. Dale Humphreys’ 30-yard throw bounces high, outside the box; a gaggle of players jump fruitlessly, the ball lands in the area, and Terry Matturo flicks into the open net. In an attempt to jump-start the offense Lea moves Stoebe up top. In the final 10 minutes Schwarz and Paniccia produce several good chances, but no one capitalizes. St. Joe’s celebrates as if they’ve won the World Cup. In FCIAC terms, they have.
• Central, 5-2, arrives in Westport 24 hours later. The Wreckers unveil a new lineup, necessitated by Schwarz’s recurring knee injury. Lamb is at central midfield, Nangle starts at outside mid, Zimmerman moves back to sweeper, Tentler goes in at stopper, and Stoebe moves all the way up front to join Sharpe. The move pays dividends, but only after the Hilltoppers grab the lead on a Staples own goal 7 minutes past halftime. That does it for the Wreckers. They do not panic or change their ball-control style of play. Alvarez grabs control of midfield, and in the 56th minute Stoebe left-foots Alvarez’s rebound home. Staples’ first come-from-behind tally of the year galvanizes them. Sharpe gets the game-winner off Alvarez’s corner kick and Stoebe’s hard-to-handle shot. The final seconds are hairy, with Zimmerman heading both a corner and free kick off the line. Play continues for 2 long minutes until Lea gets the officials’ attention, and learns they thought time was being kept on the sidelines (the timer believed the refs had it). The 2-1 match finally ends; the blue-and-whites are finally satisfied.
• Ridgefield (5-2-1) and Staples (5-2-2) boast nearly identical records, solid defenses and anemic offenses. The result, as may be expected, is a 0-0 draw. After 6 days of rest, Trinity Catholic comes to Albie Loeffler Field for a Columbus Day morning matchup. The Wreckers romp 7-0. The Stamford match is twice postponed, for rain and lack of an official. That means that the Friday, October 18 contest against 12-0 Westhill is the first in a formidable 4-games-in-5-days stretch. The Wreckers are ready; even the sight of the Vikings’ muddy, chewed-up football field does not worry them.
• Staples shows good early pressure. Alvarez keys midfield; Lamb, Nangle and Paniccia add power and poise. Defenders Tentler, Zimmerman, Rotatori and Renzulli solidly protect steady keeper Mintz; Stoebe and Sharpe work well up front. The undefeated Vikes spend the 1st half rocked on their heels. Six minutes after intermission Alvarez races to the corner and crosses to Paniccia. The curly-haired transfer fires hard to the low left corner; his celebration is straight from a highlight film. Less than 3 minutes later Nangle finds Sharpe wide open, for a stunning 2-0 lead. The Vikes find their legs in the final 25 minutes, and halve the deficit in the 60th minute on a shot by Diego Miranda. Energized, Westhill recalls the 3 times this year they’ve rallied late. Though Stoebe drops back on defense, the home side attacks furiously.
• With 50 seconds to go Mintz deflects a bullet for a corner kick. The short corner comes to Miranda on the right. His hard shot is deflected slightly — but enough to find the upper left corner. The clock reads 79:29. For the 4th time this fall, the Wreckers have surrendered a score in the final minute of a half or game.
• This time they do not die. They regroup, and the first 10-minute overtime features end-to-end action. The second OT has barely begun when Lamb feeds Alvarez. He tools his defender, cuts right, then hits a bouncing ball that Stoebe somehow controls. His shot is not pretty, but it puts the blue-and-whites prettily on top. For the final 9 minutes Alvarez glues Staples together. Paniccia works through cramps to help out, and Mintz corrals a tough ball under pressure. When the final horn blows on the 3-2 win, the Wreckers feel they have finally tossed a big bad monkey off their backs.
• The next afternoon, barely 20 hours after their huge win, Staples faces a Stamford side fighting them neck and neck for an FCIAC berth. The Westport field is slippery from a light rain. Alvarez’s 16th-minute penalty kick stakes his squad to a 1-0 lead, but Jared Ashe equalizes in the 28th minute off a direct kick that drops into the area. In the 44th minute Robinson Hoyes’ shot does not appear to cross the goal line, and the Black Knights do not celebrate. But the official rules a goal, and though the Wreckers redouble their efforts, the day ends with a disappointing 2-1 loss. Once again, they have taken 1 step forward and 1 back.
• The scoring woes continue 2 days later, at Fairfield. Alvarez smacks in his 2nd penalty kick in as many games, but though the Wreckers seem to have the match under control, the tide turns in the final 20 minutes. Mintz stands tall, but with 3:28 to play sweeper Pat Hughes knocks home a corner kick. Action heats up in Staples’ 6th overtime of the fall. Sharpe’s sharp shot is tipped away by keeper Alex Sweeney, yet no one follows; no one is there to ram in Alvarez’s rebound either. Once again, Staples draws.
• Exhausted, they draw again the next night, in Danbury’s new field-turf football stadium. The referee elicits chuckles when he asks if the Wreckers know the overtime rule. Twenty minutes later, Staples is not laughing. The draw against the weak Hatter side virtually eliminates the Westporters from FCIAC playoff contention.
• One regular season game remains. With Renzulli (charley horse), Perlwitz (flu) and Paniccia (yellow card accumulation) all out, Lea starts every able-bodied senior, including Alex Loscialpo (right back), Mike White (left midfield) and Winkler (striker). The Wreckers dispatch Brien McMahon 4-1, and prepare for post-season play.
• Ranked 17th, the 8-3-5 Stapleites travel to #16, 10-4-2 Stamford. Eager to avenge the 2-1 overtime loss 2 1/2 weeks previous, the Wreckers are unfazed by either the Black Knights’ muddy rockpile of a field or the cold, steady rain. Mintz is drenched in dirt long before the opening whistle. His intensity pumps up the team; so does the presence of Schwarz, back after a month-long layoff. Lea drops Stoebe back to defense, hoping to counter Ashe. Hoyes, who scored the game-winner in the regular season, is sidelined with a torn MCL.
• In the 4th minute Alvarez and Lamb work the ball to Stoebe. He roars upfield, then sends a ball that a defender whiffs. It carries through to Paniccia, unmarked 20 yards from goal. He finishes solidly and low. Amped, the blue-and-whites pick up the pace even more — and, despite the rough conditions, continue to control. They work the ball around when they can, bang when they must, and are rewarded in the 59th minute. Schwarz clears to Sharpe. The ball bounces off a few shins, directly at Winkler. The erstwhile keeper, who after returning from his own MCL injury has played up front but is frustrated by his inability to score, looks like a poised veteran pouncing on the open net. The final tally comes 4 minutes from time. Sharpe calmly feeds Alvarez, who walks the ball in. Mintz keeps the shutout with 2 late saves. In the post-game handshake line, a defeated Knight tells Lea: "Coach, you’ve got a bunch of hard-working kids. They just came at us."
• That is the game plan against #1-ranked,17-0-0, third-in-the-nation Newtown: go at ’em. The strategy does not change even though the 6 p.m. game is postponed 24 hours at 11:30 a.m., long after rain stops. The Wreckers wonder: Do the Nighthawks fear Staples’ prowess in the mud? Does Newtown think Mike Troy (43 goals, 12 assists), the Tracy brothers and the rest of the unbeaten upstaters can work their magic only in perfect condition? Whatever the answer, the Westporters plan to pressure Newtown’s relatively untested backs, man-mark Troy with Stoebe, and use their own potent quartet of Schwarz, Alvarez, Lamb and Nangle to neutralize their opponent’s quick, skillful 5-man midfield. Blue and Gold Stadium is nearly filled for the highly anticipated match.Despite slippery footing due to frost, the game proves as exciting as its buildup.
• The hosts start strongly, reminding fans of the Wreckers’ own (nearly) invincible 2000 squad. Staples plays quicker than they want, but the Nighthawk defense proves impervious to pressure. In the 25th minute Mintz smothers a shot, boosting his side. Staples’ 1st corner kick comes 6 minutes later; then the counter begins. Just past midfield Marcus Tracy feeds his brother Brian, who turns the left corner and slides the ball in, near post.
• The Wreckers seem rattled, but Newtown’s Dave Kinsley receives a yellow card 3 minutes later for a flagrant foul. With time running out Schwarz fires a free kick. Winkler jumps high and heads forward. The ball bounces once as the keeper comes out, flailing with 1 hand. Lamb, running on at the 6, heads it in. Just 21 seconds remain before halftime. Finally, the team that surrendered 4 late-half goals this year — all killers — gets 1 of their own. They head jubilantly to the sidelines.
• Hoping to neutralize Newtown’s 5 midfielders, Lea drops Paniccia back to start the 2nd half. The move works well. With Stoebe locking up Troy tightly, and fellow backs Rotatori, Tentler and Zimmerman doing yeoman’s work too, the Wreckers play their best soccer of the season. In the 42nd minute Paniccia’s header off Schwarz’s long direct kick ripples the outside net. The crowd roars — but it misses by an inch.
• Staples is on fire. Lamb’s seeing-eye 50th-minute ball to Nangle nearly hits paydirt. Schwarz, who covers enormous territory while Alvarez stays home and keeps things under control, feeds Nangle down the line — yet the shot is high. Newtown bends, but will not buckle. Zimmerman rides Troy out of bounds. Tension rises, on the field and in the stands. The Wreckers remain cool but the Nighthawks — never tested this way all year — seem frustrated.
• Suddenly, with 13 minutes to go, Marcus Tracy puts on his jets. He blows past his markers and finishes strongly. Newtown leads 2-1, yet Staples goes right back to work. Winkler counters — and shoots wide. Then, just 2:17 after their go-ahead goal, the home side does what they do best: score again quickly. Ryan Tracy’s free kick drops in the box, and Troy hammers it home.
• Staples still does not die. Winkler immediately earns a corner kick. But the Nighthawk backs are equal to the task. Smelling victory, and with nearly every Stapleite attacking, Troy nets a counter goal 4 minutes from time. The match ends. But everyone in Newtown — both teams, and all their fans — know it is the closest 4-1 game they have ever seen.
• The annual banquet, held at Riverview Manor in Norwalk, is — like so many matches this season — postponed (by snow). Guest speaker Kyle Martino ’99 cannot make the rescheduled date; Peter Doolittle ’88 fills in admirably. Block "S"s are awarded to Jason Alvarez (Most Valuable Player) and Wayne Tentler (Most Improved). Zach Schwarz earns the Alumni Award. Junior varsity MVPs are given to Derek Kennedy and Sean Milligan, while freshman Charlie Reiter gets the Stephen Martin Award.
• The varsity’s 7 overtime matches translates into 20 minutes less than 2 complete extra games.
• 6 younger players suit up for state tournament action: sophomores Brian Kennedy, Derek Kennedy, Sean Milligan, Lee Solomon and Nick Vornle, and freshman Charlie Reiter.
• Coach Tip Vilay’s junior varsity finish 10-2. The freshmen of coach Mark Boynton are 5-4-1.
• Newtown avenges last year’s quarterfinal loss to Guilford, topping the Indians on penalty kicks in the semis. But Naugatuck, #3 and 18-0-1, wins its second straight LL championship. This time the Greyhounds battle back from a 2-0 deficit, tying the Nighthawks with 4 minutes remaining, and getting the game-winner with just 3:03 left in the final overtime.
• Wethersfield’s Robert and David Brickley help their school win the L state championship. They are the sons of Neil Brickley ’71 — who charters a plane to get from Wethersfield’s game in Woodstock to Newtown, in time to cheer on his alma mater.
CO-CAPTAINS: Zach Schwarz, Chris Winkler
COACH: Jeff Lea