2018: Tight Bonds, Tight Matches

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

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

Regular Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FCIAC Tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen saves the 2nd shooter. Prizio does too.

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

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

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

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

State tournament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick kicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

RECORD: 12-4-4

CO-CAPTAINS: Nick Ambrose, Gabe Baltierra

COACH: Dan Woog

2019: Roller Coast Ride Ends Near The Top


Staples soccer may be 61 years old, but there’s always something new.

This year — for the first time ever — tryouts begin 2 days after school starts. The CIAC sets the date, which made for a very odd start to the school year. Wakeman field has been closed all summer as new turf is laid too, sending Super Liga to Jinny Parker Field. And with the Staples track being worked on too, the Cooper test is held at PJ Romano Field — another first.

But all is back to normal when scrimmages begin. Former Development Academy senior Evan Birns, classmate Josh DeDomenico and junior Alan Fiore score at Fairfield Prep; Birns, sophomore Murilo Moreno and junior Haydn Siroka tally at Joel Barlow.

With Martin Luther King off the schedule due to the late-start scheduling difficulties, the Wreckers pick up another powerhouse: Glastonbury. The CFC Park matchup is tight for the first 30 minutes, but the 2-time defending state champs pull away after the break for a decisive 5-0 win. The Westporters lick their wounds, wonder what happened to their offense, and crash back to earth. The annual Wethersfield jamboree puts them back — tentatively — on track.

Regular Season

It takes just 2 minutes after the opening whistle for Staples to strike at Central. Junior midfielder Jack Douglas wins a ball. His quick shot caroms off a defender. Fiore pounces, for the first goal of the season. Birns soon adds another.

But the Wreckers suffer a blow only 20 minutes in. Douglas — who has played superbly — suffers a season-ending non-contact ACL injury. He joins senior Callum Wisher — whose hip injury will soon be diagnosed as season-ending too — on the sideline. Birns and Siroka finish the scoring in the 4-1 win.

Preseason FCIAC favorite Danbury is playing their home games at Mill Ridge Primary School (track renovation at the high school). It’s a pleasant setting, if hot, and the Wreckers show well. Benny Feuer takes Douglas’ place, while Carter Bassler earns a start at left back. The Hatters are a defensive-minded team, and Staples can’t break through. The hosts get the one goal, 5 minutes after halftime, after a defensive giveaway.

Patricio Perez Elorza (2), Siroka (2), Lars Djuve and Reese Watkins — called up from the reserves, with Will Adams and Thomas Corridon — score in a 6-0 defeat of Trinity Catholic.

Norwalk provides a stern test. Junior keeper Reed Caney is tested for the first time this year, and saves a dangerous free kick. Six minutes later Fiore drops his own free kick into the box. Birns times his run perfectly, and pokes it home. The Bears storm back, but the home side grits out a solid 1-0 victory.

Trumbull’s football field has never been friendly to Staples. They’re happy to play the defending FCIAC champ Eagles at their new turf (the old grass soccer) field. Players sport “Sebe” patches on their uniform, honoring their longtime coach Sebe Gangemi who died in the spring. The hosts jump out to a quick 2-0 lead, on a pair of defensive errors.

But the Wreckers settle down, and play quick-passing, ball-movement soccer. They impose their tempo on the match, and turn the tide. Perez Elorza halves the deficit before halftime. Thirteen minutes after the break Caney bangs a ball past midfield. Djuve corrals it and feeds Birns, who calmly finishes. Staples continues its decade-long inability to beat Trumbull — but coming back from 2 goals down to tie is a lot better than previous matches against them.

Fairfield Warde is the talk of the FCIAC. Their direct style earns them a 3-0-1 mark. They dictate the first half, score on a 31st-minute penalty kick, then hold on defensively for a chippy 1-0 win.

The brutal first half of the season — with match after match against the league’s top teams — continues at home against Greenwich. They arrive at Loeffler Field 6-0-0 — and unscored upon.

Caney smothers a 3rd-minute penalty kick, but the Cardinals dictate much of the first half. The second half is entirely different. The blue-and-whites win contested balls, keep the ball on the grass, play to feet, play to corners, play with heart. They pressure all over the field, and George Smith, Bassler, Birns and Sam Liles all come close. Keeper Paddy Colligan makes spectacular saves — but with 7 minutes to go, Perez Elorza laces a long free kick to the far post. Emerson Anvari heads it on frame. It hits the inside of the post, caroms back, then backs off the inside of the near post. Brendan Lynch — the defender who comes forward for his heading ability — knocks the low ball in from 2 yards out. Staples preserves the lead, and at the final horn the crowd on The Hill surges onto the field to celebrate.

A dozen players from the 1969 team — the first of 5 consecutive state champions — gather for a 50th-anniversary Saturday reunion in the cafeteria. The 2019 team meets them, then heads to Loeffler Field to meet Fairfield Ludlowe. A frustrating 0-0 draw leads into a by week — and a hoped-for easier second half of the schedule than the first.

It doesn’t turn out that way. A week later, again at home on a Saturday, Staples outshoots Stamford 17-6, out corner kicks them 7-3 — yet falls 2-0. Then comes an equally frustrating 0-0 tie at Ridgefield. The Wreckers are 5-3-3 — and frustrated.

Troubles mount at Darien. The Blue Wave are having their own tough season. But they capitalize on several Staples mistakes, pulling out an improbable 3-1 win. With 4 matches left in the regular season, the Westporters are in a dogfight for an FCIAC playoff berth.

St. Joseph sits near the bottom of the table. Moreno’s goal puts the hosts ahead, in their third straight Saturday home match. But a red card 1 minute before halftime forces them to play a man down. They pull out the win, and a valuable 3 points.

They get 3 more at Westhill, on goals from Perez Elorza (penalty kick) and Anvari, then add another 3 as Perez Elorza, Feuer and Fiore score.

Wet weather moves the regular season finale to the Wakeman turf. Wilton has been hot all year. The Wreckers seem to have righted their ship. They’re training sharply, playing well, and brimming with a positive, enthusiastic attitude. Today’s match determine seedings for the FCIAC tournament — and a possible home game for the state tournament too.

Caney makes a big save. Defenders Lynch, Feuer, Bassler, Surya Balaji and Ryan Thomas keep the visitors at bay. In the 24th minute Feuer rises high above the crowd, heading Perez Elorza’s corner kick home with authority.

Wilton draws level 7 minutes later. Staples comes right back. Anvari, Smith and Soroka work 1-2s in the box. Moreno wins balls at midfield, lays off quickly and follows up. Liles tracked back and raced forward, up and down the right side. Fiore was fleet on the left. DeDomenico adds a spark up top, and the final 20 minutes are Staples’ best of the year. They don’t score again, but they’ve enjoyed the bitterly fought, well-played, hard, clean match. They end the regular season on a very up note.

FCIAC tournament

It’s been a while since the 2nd game of the season: a 1-0 loss to Danbury. Once again the Wreckers travel north. They’re the 6th seed, in the very tight league tournament. Anyone can win it.

All year long, Staples has started slowly. Not today. In a fierce wind, they take control from the start. They press, back each other up, show trust and confidence. Perez Elorza’s bicycle kick almost connects in the 34th minute. But keeper Matthew Silva saves well.

Balaji commands his defense — Lynch, Feuer and Bassler — strongly. In the 44th minute — almost exactly when Danbury struck in the first game — Balaji’s long free kick is flicked on by Lynch. Birns coolly side-of-the-left-foot volleys it. It’s well-timed, well-taken and unstoppable. One of the prettiest goals of the year leads to one of the best celebrations.

The visitors withstand a 10-minute Hatter flurry. Then Perez Elorza and Moreno nail down midfield. Smith, Fiore, Anvari, Djuve and DeDomenico press up top. Liles owns the right side. Staples manages the game to the end. The only thing they can’t manage is transportation: The bus home never shows up. The team rides home with parents.

That brings a rematch with Trumbull. Last year the Eagles knocked the Wreckers out in the FCIAC semis, on penalty kicks, en route to the title. They’re seeded #2 in the tournament again this year; again the match is at Fairfield Ludlowe.

Staples starts strongly. Seven minutes in, Perez Elorza drills a great corner kick into the box. Feuer — the defender who comes forward on set pieces — heads strongly in. It’s his 3rd goal in 4  games.

The Westporters have 2 more chances, from Smith and off a corner. But in the 23rd minute an  inadvertent hand ball gives the Eagles a free kick directly in front of the goal. Justin Horvath drills it perfectly.

The goal energizes Trumbull. They win more balls, and push forward better. In the 30th minute, they score on another free kick.

The blue-and-whites are confident at halftime. But Trumbull turns the tide 3 minutes after play resumes, with Matthew Bagley’s long, looping shot. Staples pushes forward. A 71st-minute goal from Tiago Frazao ices the win. It’s a bitter defeat to the Wreckers’ nemesis. And it comes by the largest margin of the season.

State tournament

Seeded 17th — one spot below the threshold for a first-round home game — Staples travels to Bowen Field in New Haven. Their foe is Wilbur Cross. They’ve met (and the Wreckers have won) only 3 times before. The most recent was 1990 — more than a decade before any current players were born.

The Westporters know little about the Governors, except they’re quick up top. In the 18th minute Anvari puts Perez Elorza’s corner kick on frame. It’s saved, but Anvari lifts it up. Feuer — up again from defense, and with the hot hand — knocks in his 4th goal in 5 games.

Caney is immediately forced into a save. Ten minutes later he makes an even better one, tipping the ball over the top.

Staples dictates both the tempo and style. Yet a minute before halftime, they’re caught on a counter. Caney comes out hard, beyond the box. He sticks out his hand to stop the sure goal — and earns an immediate red card. The Wreckers will play the next 41 minutes a man down.

Sebi Montoulieu comes on in goal. Playing smart tactically, strong technically and tough physically, the visitors don’t allow Cross to develop a rhythm. In fact, Lynch rams in Perez Elorza’s free kick — and then Smith’s shot deflects off a defender, for an own goal.

Siroka, DeDomenico, Thomas, Colin Corneck, Jack Foster and Aidan Mermagen help run out the clock. The lower seed — and the team with one fewer player — prevails.

Beating the #16 team in the 1st round means the Wreckers face the #1 seed. Many years, it’s a team that goes undefeated in an easy league. This year it’s Glastonbury. The Tomahawks are 2-time defending state champions — and winners of the LL crown 5 of the past 6 years. They’re big, strong, and score in bunches (as they showed in that 5-0 preseason demolition of Staples).

Oh, yeah: They have not been scored on in the state tournament since 2016.

Plus, the match is played in Glastonbury, on one of the coldest days in tourney history. The wind chill is 20 degrees. The wind blows. The Tomahawk fans are out in force. Staples has a few parents (and ’19 graduate Ryan Fincher).

The coaches have given the Wrecker players 2 options: bunker in and hope for a lucky goal and/or penalty kicks, or press hard offensively. Both strategies have upsides, and risks. After a healthy debate, the team chooses to press. The coaches warn them: They must do it well. And hard. For 80 minutes.

Glastonbury goes up 2-0 — in the first 14 minutes. Westport fans and players could be forgiven for looking longingly at the warm Dattco bus.

But Staples rights themselves. They do not give up, or let up. They reorganize, put the ball on the turf, press, and pull themselves back in the game.

Three minutes before halftime, Perez Elorza finds Fiore with a great pass on the left side. The junior cuts in and fires. His shot carries, beating the keeper low and inside the far post.

Halftime in the locker room is upbeat. Perez Elorza and Birns have good chances when play resumes. But the Tomahawks have at least as many at their end. Montoulieu comes up huge several times, saving balls and cutting down angles to prevent more dangerous shots.

From the 60th to 70th minutes, the Tomahawks pull control back. Still, Staples battles. With 10 minutes to go, they turn up the pressure.

In the 73rd minute Anvari holds the ball, then lays off to Djuve. He bulls forward, and pokes in a close-range shot. Just like that — with 6:55 to play — the Wreckers have drawn even.

They go for the jugular. Birns takes on 3 defenders, then left-foots a gorgeous shot just beyond the keeper’s outstretched hands. It’s now 3-2, Staples. Just 3:41 remains.

The defending sate champs fight fiercely. They earn 2 dangerous corners. But defenders Feuer, Bassler, Lynch and Balaji hold firm. They win tackles and play smartly out of the back.

At the final whistle, the Wrecker bench storms the field. Their team has followed the game plan to perfection.  They’ve pulled off one of the biggest upsets in their 61-year history — and done it with one of their greatest comebacks ever.

The bus ride home is certainly warm.

Just 48 hours after that momentous win, the quarterfinals loom. Can the Wreckers get back down to earth and concentrate? Fortunately, the opponent focuses them sharply: Trumbull.

Learning from the FCIAC match just a couple of weeks before, Staples tweaks their game plan. They play less of a high line, and drop more quickly. That keeps the direct-playing Eagles further from goal.

The enormous night crowd creates an atmosphere worthy of a state final. The game is played that intensely — and well — too.

In the 27th minute Montoulieu saves from point blank range. Meanwhile Perez Elorza is the midfield maestro, winning balls and roaring forward. Moreno backs him up nicely. Fiore mans the left side; Liles uses his speed and wiles to get behind the defense on the right.

Anvari and Djuve hold the ball up top. Smith slips through cleverly. Birns — bothered by a hamstring injury — sits out the first half. When he comes on, he adds a jolt.

In the 51st minute the Eagles switch the play from right to left. A cross from the far side is headed strongly in. The hometown fans roar.

Staples is unconcerned. They were down 2 days earlier at Glastonbury, 2 months earlier on this same Trumbull field. They spread the field, work the ball ahead, attack with numbers. Bassler — the left back — rattles the post with a shot.

Despite great team soccer and tremendous grit, the clock ticks down.

Suddenly, Bassler wins a ball. Feuer switches fields. Perez Elorza works the right corner, takes on a man, turns and drills a cross into the box. Birns finishes, with a spectacular diving header.

Once again, Staples has battled back from the abyss. This time, just 5:58 remains.

The teams head to 2 10-minute overtime. It’s intense, end to end — and scoreless.

For the 2nd time in 2 years, the Wreckers take PKs in a state tournament match. Last year, they went 5-for-5 to knock out Darien.

Balaji starts them off well. Trumbull counters.

The 2nd Wrecker is saved. The Eagles score.

Smith and Liles convert — but so does  Trumbull.

Feuer must connect, to keep his side alive. Calmly, he does.

Now it’s up to Trumbull. A good kick wins it.

And it does.

The Wreckers are devastated. They’ve played their hearts out. They’ve come from behind. They’ve taken the FCIAC champs to the limit.

It’s a gutting defeat. But along the way, Staples has won something else: the hearts of fans all over the state.

Quick Kicks

Patricio Perez Elorza delivers a stirring speech at the annual banquet at the Norwalk Inn, describing his joy at choosing to play high school soccer after the Development Academy freshman year …

Colin Corneck is chosen as the high school speaker for the town’s annual Veterans Day ceremony …

The reserves of coach Russell Oost-Lievense and Reilly Lynch go 11-1-2. Coach Chris O’Dell’s freshmen run up a 9-1-1 mark…

The 2018 varsity earns another United Soccer Coaches Academic All-America award, for a team GPA of well over 3.25. It’s the Wreckers’ 17th in 18 years …

Head coach Dan Woog receives 2 honors from United Soccer Coaches too: the “Coach of Significance” Award for Connecticut, and a special commendation for his service as chair of the LGBT and Allies advocacy group …

Trumbull wins its 2nd straight FCIAC championship. Hall takes the state LL crown.

RECORD: 11-6-4

COACH: Dan Woog

CAPTAINS: Surya Balaji, Sam Liles




COVID strikes in March. Winter sports seasons end abruptly: Staples’ girls basketball team has just qualified for the state semifinals when the tournament is canceled. The entire spring schedule is scratched too.

Months of uncertainty end in mid-summer. The CIAC announces that there will be a fall season – with many restrictions.

Leagues will break teams into small groups, based on geographic proximity to limit travel and exposure, and help with tracing. There will be a maximum of 12 games (down from 16), and no more than 2 per week. There will be a post-season “tournament experience,” but no state tourney.

With the pre-season team trip to Maine off, co-captain Jack Douglas’ parents organize a day-long competition in Westport: soccer skills, scavenger hunt, burger contest and paddle boarding. George Smith is the overall winner, followed closely by Haran Eiger and Aidan Mermagen.

The annual STA pre-season camp runs, with daily testing. The Cooper 2-mile run is done in cohorts of 10.

Tryouts have a different look too. “Contact” is not allowed; players are restricted to cohorts of 10, and they cannot change during the entire 3-week “conditioning” period.

Because one positive case would cause an entire cohort to quarantine, the coaches decide they cannot keep, say, all the varsity returnees in one cohort. Nor can they group players together by position; otherwise, they might lose 10 defenders at once. The result is 3 weeks of technical training, with groups of different ages and positions. Because there are so many cohorts, the sessions are run twice: first for 60 minutes each, then longer. Each cohort is named for a former Staples All-American.

There is one pre-season match – against another team in the same pool, Norwalk. Both teams are, predictably, ragged; it’s the first competitive match for most players since last November. Staples scores first, off Alan Fiore’s feed to Haydn Siroka. The Bears equalize on a penalty kick, then seize the lead, but sophomore Ben Douglas heads in a long throw from classmate Hunter Smith. Norwalk tacks on 2 late goals to win.

Another scrimmage follows, with Brien McMahon. Fiore and Siroka set up Reese Watkins’ tap-in. Staples goes up 2-0 on a keeper error. The Senators go up 3-2 on a penalty kick, corner kick and goal, but Staples wins on goals by Siroka (from Zach Pulichino, Jack Kuster, Ryan Thomas and Pulichioo.             .

Regular Season

This will be a strange year, for sure. The FCIAC has shrunk from 17 teams to 16, with the closure of Trinity Catholic. But instead of each team playing every other one, there is “regional competition.” Fairfield Prep, Wright Tech-Stamford, and Bridgeport’s Bassick and Harding have been added to the league, for this year only.

The FCIAC is divided into 3 groups. Teams play opponents only within that group, in a home-and-home, back-to-back format. That lessons the chance of multiple teams being affected by quarantines. All matches are Mondays and Wednesdays; reserves and freshmen play on Saturdays.

Staples is in the Central Division, with Norwalk, Brien McMahon, Wilton, Danbury and Ridgefield. They are fortunate: of their 10 scheduled matches, none are easy. Competition will be fierce.

Oh, yeah: With only 2 spectators per player allowed (a decision by Staples athletic director Marty Lisevick), all matches will be livestreamed. Robert Brickley – son of Neil Brickley ’71, and a former University of Connecticut captain – will call the games, with a rotating cast of alumni.

The season kicks off very late: October 2. The few fans (and large livestream audience) see 2 very different halves. At the outset the host Wreckers attack strongly. After the break, Danbury claws back. In the 60th minute, they score.

Staples cannot capitalize. Pressing forward with only 3 backs, they surrender a 2nd goal. With 1:35 to go Watkins calmly finishes a rebound of co-captain Jack Douglas’ shot. But it’s too little, too late.

(The match is Douglas’ first ever at Loeffler Field. He missed all of sophomore year with a back injury, and tore his ACL 20 minutes into the 2019 sason opener at Central.)

The back-to-back format means the Wreckers have a rematch at Danbury next. The visitors strike just 12 minutes in. Jack Foster’s long cross from the right finds Murilo Moreno’s head. The short passing game works, but Danbury threatens. Douglas clears a ball off the line.

In the 65th minute, the Hatters take a throw-in the Wreckers thought was theirs. A quick pass leads to a header goal, and a 1-1 draw.

Wilton draws first blood at Kristine Lilly Field: a 16th-minute header. They go up 2-0 12 minutes into the second half, then add 2 more very quickly to ice the match. It’s a discouraging loss. It’s nearly mid-October. The Wreckers still seek their first win.

They vow to get it in the rematch, at Wakeman. With a few lineup tweaks – Graham Barnes making his first varsity start, at midfield; George Smith moved to the right; Siroka starting up top, and Bruno Guiduli – recovered from a long injury, and moved up from reserves, debuting as a center back start —  things click.

Staples plays more quickly, and more to feet, than previously. They use the entire width of the field.

In the 22nd minute, center back Surya Balaji slices a seeing-eye ball through the defense. Fiore takes a few touches, cuts inside and finishes calmly. Jackson Hochhauser marks Nathan Bennett – perhaps the league’s best player – with composure and intelligence. Enzo Valadares plays strongly in goal, but a scuffed shot off an uncleared corner makes the final 1-1.

It’s a far cry from the 4-0 spanking a few days earlier. But the 0-2-2 Wreckers still seek their first win.

They seem on their way at Tiger Hollow. Just 2:47 into the Ridgefield match, Siroka curls a long-range shot into the far right corner.

A series of injuries – 3 to the Tigers in the first 5 minutes, plus Wrecker co-captain Douglas (his second season-ending ACL tear in 2 years) – along with a slew of fouls and balls out of bounds prevent either side from finding a rhythm.

Balaji’s PK makes it 2-0. But after 2 second-half Ridgefield goals – the second on a penalty kick – the lead vanishes.

Staples responds with passion, poise, smart play and grit. Fiore creates havoc, with runs up the left side and cuts into the box.

In the 70th minute, Foster hits Pulichino; he delivers a well-timed, nicely weighted pass. Fiore finishes clinically.

Down a man after a red card, and with Staples managing the match, Ridgefield is stymied. On October 14, the Wreckers notch their first “W” of the year.

Fiore opens the rematch with a quick shot that skitters between the keeper’s legs. Barnes’ corner kick is tapped in by Hochhauser. Moreno returns after 3 matches out with a concussion, to bolster midfield.

It’s 2-0, again, at halftime. This time the blue-and-whites do not take their foot off the gas. Hochhauser sends Fiore in on the keeper; the striker rounds him, and caroms a shot in off the underside fo the crossbar. Eiger, Ben Douglas, Kyle Rotolo, Aaron Jaffe and keeper Sebi Montoulieu come off the bench to secure the 3-0 win.

Norwalk allows no fans at Testa Field. So only those watching via livestream – including a first-ever showing at the Remarkable Theater drive-in on Imperial Avenue – see Staples dominate the first 20 minutes. Pulichino, Moreno, Fiore and Smith link with Barnes and Siroka; Balaji, Guiduli, Hochhauser and Foster keep the Bears at bay.

Ini the 9th minute Foster’s long ball to Siroka’s header is fumbled in by the keeper. Seven minutes later Fiore knuckleballs in a 25-yard free kick, with uncanny accuracy. Montelieu saves a 22nd-minute penalty, but the hosts halve the deficit just before intermission on a free kick. Reed Caney comes on in goal in the 2nd half to preserve the 2-1 win – Staples’ 3rd in a row, after a slow start.

The red-hot Wreckers train the next day in a cold, driving rain. Despite the weather, they have a blast. The next day’s session is intense, productive, fun (and cold). But the rematch with Norwalk they’re preparing for is off: the Bears are in quarantine.

That’s the 3rd time Staples has lost a match. The 2 Brien McMahon games were scrubbed too, due to COVID among the Senator squad.

Abruptly, the “regular season” is over.

“Post-season Experience”

With no FCIAC or state tournament, the Wreckers prepare for a “post-season experience”: a playoff with teams already played in their 6-school Central Division pod. Seeded #2, they host McMahon. Their only previous encounter this year was in pre-season.

Any thoughts that this is not a real post-season game vanish quickly. It’s a battle from the start. George Smith is out with COVID, but delivers an inspiring pre-match speech via text. Marcos Inglada steps up well. The Senators are a step quicker in the first half, and force Valadares into a pair of tough saves.

Two minutes before halftime, Staples’ Achilles heel – defending against set pieces – again haunts them. The Senators head in off a corner.

Energized after intermission, Valadares’ long punt to Siroka is saved just 1 minute it.

Play grows harder as time grows short. Balaji is shown a red card with 10 minutes to go, but the Wreckers continue to push forward. So does McMahon.

The 1-0 defeat is a bitter end to a shortened, very different and difficult season. Among its many victims, COVID counts Staples soccer.

Quick Kicks

There are just 2 pasta dinners – both outside, and both “bring your own food.” ….

The Wreckers raise nearly $5,765 in a Ruden Report-sponsored Walk for Alzheimer’s at Sherwood Island – the most of more than 100 programs participating, in all sports at all 16 FCIAC schools ….

Quiz Night is virtual – and a huge success. It’s masterminded by Sandro Moreno, Murilo’s father. There is, however, no car wash ….

Staples is the only fall team to have a “banquet.” It’s actually a varsity players-only event, outdoors at the Sherwood Diner at 4 p.m. on a December Sunday. Parents watch via livestream. It’s freezing – but it’s something no other team has, in this sad, up-and-down, but memorable COVID year.

RECORD: 3-3-2

COACH: Dan Woog

CO-CAPTAINS: Surya Balaji, Jack Douglas




Gone are the training pods, daily health check-ins, and one-person-per-row seating on buses.

Back is a regular season schedule against every FCIAC team; post-season league and state tournaments, and spectators.

COVID is not over (and players and coaches will keep their fingers crossed all season that it does not come roaring back – or simply spread through the squad). But the 2021 season will look far more normal than the ’20 one.

Last year, the Wreckers got whatever they could out of the fall. There was soccer, with all its smiles. But the season was just shell of itself – in retrospect, a very sad time.

Excitement is high, as usual, on Day 1. What’s not usual is the start time for tryouts at Wakeman Field: 6 a.m.

With assistant coach Russell Oost-Lievense (a teacher at Darien High) and reserve coach Chris Flaherty (also coaching at the University of Bridgeport) having morning conflicts, 54 seniors, juniors and sophomores report with the sun not yet up, and mist rising off the turf. They return at 5 p.m., then again at 6 a.m. the next day.

The morning sessions are 2 of the most productive ever. In the annual “Meet the Wreckers” website questionnaire, every player except one gives a thumb’s-up to the pre-dawn workouts. Who knew?!

The preseason schedule includes a 1-0 win at Joel Barlow, and a 6-0 demolition of highly touted Fairfield Prep (with backup keeper Nick Sikorski keeping a clean sheet, following an early broken nose for starter Jacob Greenberger).

Staples marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11 by participating, as always, in the Wethersfield jamboree that honors 3 Eagles, and Wrecker Scott Coleman, lost that tragic day. Staples starts primarily newcomers in a 1-0 loss to Tolland 1-1 draw with Kingswood Oxford. The final match is an intense 0-0 draw with the hosts.

As Oost-Lievense takes on the key role of lead assistant coach, the blue-and-whites are ready for their first post-pandemic season.

Regular season

After putting $20,000 into Loeffler Field this summer, a steady rain the day before the opener is worrisome. But the sun comes out, the grass drieds, and several hundred people pack The Hill to watch the return of normal soccer.

To call the Wreckers “senior-laden” is an understatement. Eighteen of the 26 rostered players are 12th graders – and that does not count Thomas Corridon, the brilliant midfielder who will miss the season with an ACL injury. (He was out all of 2020 too, with back problems.)

Within 4 minutes, tri-captain Murilo Moreno bangs in a shot off the far post for a 1-0 lead. Three minutes later it’s 2-0; Reese Watkins heads in Jack Foster’s long free kick that clangs off the crossbar. In the 34th minute Marius Ekeberg – back from Norway, where he spent the past 2 years – lays off to Dylan Hoke. The sophomore transfer from New York City rips a 25-yarder past the keeper’s fingertips.

Staples scores twice more, in the 75th minute (Ryan Thomas to junior Matt Shackelford) and – 10 seconds before time – Thomas again to Jaden Mueller. 6-0 over Ridgefield: Are the Tigers that weak, or are the Wreckers that good?

Ekeberg’s volley and Murilo’s PK give Staples a 2-1 win at New Canaan’s Dunning Stadium. The Rams score on a PK, with 7 minutes to go.

The hot match-up between the Wreckers and Greenwich is that, literally: The temperature forces mid-half water breaks. A crowd of 500 at Loeffler Field watches the hosts fail to finish their chances, and defenders Jackson Hochhauser and Bruno Guiduli (both tri-captains), Hunter Smith and Foster lock down in a 0-0 draw.

Unscored-upon Danbury and once-scored-upon (PK) Staples tangle in Westport. The Wreckers again give up a penalty kick – but Greenberger comes through with a huge 54th-minute save. It’s Staples’ second straight 0-0 draw. And – in hot weather like the Greenwich match – just as frustrating. Again Staples controls possession and tempo, play well out of the back and wide. Once again though, they fail to convert their few chances.

After yet another scoreless half – this one on the fast Westhill turf – the blue-and-whites grow concerned. Too many shots are rushed, forced or never fired, the result of too many touches in and around the box.

Sophomore Avery Mueller makes his varsity debut after halftime. It’s a very different 40 minutes. Eight minutes in, Smith’s long throw bounces to Mueller. He plays it forward. Hoke’s shot bounces off a back. Watkins finds it 6 yards from goal, and finishes firmly.

Two more substitutions – Tim Liakh at midfield, and Ben Douglas on the back line – help. The visitors weather a scary moment – an indirect kick 2 yard from goal – and gut out a breathe-a-sigh-of-relief 1-0 win.

The Wilton match is one for the books. Staples is in control. They use the entire Wakeman Fieldl width; knock the ball laterally, diagonally and forward with balletic precision; take opponents on with dynamism and pace, and are both artistic and strong.

But an old bugaboo – lack of scoring – bites them. Watkins forces a keeper bobble; Mueller’s blast is saved nicely; Hoke sends a great ball across. But for all their possession and pressure, the Wreckers uncork any other threatening first-half shots.

The second half belongs even more to Staples. There are several crazy sequences, with intricate passing, hard shots and rebounds. Yet Wilton packs the back, thwarts every attempt, and emerges with a 0-0 draw. It’s Staples’ 3rd in 4 games. They’re fit to be tied.

Darien is next, and they pull out all the stops. Cheerleaders, the first livestream of the season – this is huge. After a 1-1 season-opening draw with Norwalk, they’re riding a 6-game undefeated streak. Staples is unbeaten too. But they’re 3-0-3, and frustrated.

The Blue Wave draw first blood, a 17th-minute header off a corner kick. It’s the first goal the Wreckers concede from the field all year. It’s also the first time they trail.

They come back 13 minutes later. Matthew Genser’s cross from the corner is punched away by the keeper. The ball bounces; Reese touches it forward, and Mueller finishes from close range.

But Darien comes back too. Though defender Genser, Hochhauser, Guiduli and former academy player Caleb Tobias catch Darien offside 10 times this afternoon, they get burned once. A 58th-minute breakaway gives the hosts a 2-1 edge.

Watkins, Matthew Jordan and Will Adams deliver searing crosses in the final 20 minutes. But keeper Will Lehan is equal to the task. And though Staples leads 10-4 in shots, Darien leads in goals, 2-1. And the Wreckers are knocked from the ranks of undefeated teams.

Amazingly – and worryingly – Staples’ next contest is against another undefeated side, again away. Fairfield Warde is 5-0-2; their record is marred only by ties with Greenwich and Ridgefield.

The Mustangs’ grass field – the only other one in the FCIAC, besides Loeffler – is very wide. The grass is high, and clumpy. The visitors hope to play wide, drawing Warde’s strong defenders out of the middle. But as happens often this year, Staples starts slowly. They pay, conceding a 14th-minute goal.

Once again though, the 2nd half bears little resemblance to the first. Now they defend with purpose, and attack with passion. Liakh, Hoke, Tobias, Ekeberg and Foster keep the ball in Warde’s end. Moreno, Mueller, Thomas, Adams and Watkins apply pressure. Now the hosts are under the gun.

Tobias earns a PK. Watkins buries it. Twenty minutes remain.

Energized, the Wreckers press forward. Six minutes later, Adams’ corner kick bounces around. Foster firers; it bounces some more. Watkins blasts in, from close range.

Warde battles right back. But Staples withstands the pressure. They manage the match – a big one.

It comes at the halfway point. What lies ahead? Will Staples now play with confidence from the start? Do they know they can score? Will they remember how to come from behind?

And – most importantly – what will they do in their next match, against their nemesis Trumbull?

Since 2011, the Eagles have owned the Wreckers. In that span Staples lost 8 times, and drew 5 times. The matches included regular season, FCIAC and state games – including, most recently, the 2019 state quarterfinal PK shootout.

The Westporters’ goal is to score goals. In the 10th minute, Moreno sends Adams in; he caroms a shot off the far post for his first varsity strike. But despite great efforts from Tobias, Hoke, Mueller, Moreno, Adams and Genser, the halftime score is just 1-0.

It does not stay that way for long. Six minutes after intermission, Watkins finishes a deflection of Tobias’ shot. Then Foster dumps a ball in the box. The Eagles think Tobias is offside, and stop playing. He isn’t, and has one of the easiest tap-ins of his career.

But too-casual defense and a bad bounce let the visitors slice the lead to 3-2. Rather than crumbling though, the Wreckers get right back to work. In the 67th minute Jordan sends Watkins in 1-on-1 with the keeper, for a goal. Two minutes later, Watkins rams in his 3rd of the day (and 5th in 2 matches). Tobias gets his 3rd assist on Thomas’ tally. Like Adams’, it’s his first varsity goal ever.

In their locker room – the repurposed equipment shed a few yards from their bench – the victors celebrate. They change the whiteboard from “0-8-5” to “1-0-0.”

The Stamford match is less memorable. Just 1:16 is elapsed when Adams heads in Jordan’s cross. Twelve minutes later, Adams assists on Moreno’s wicked-angle shot. Just before halftime though, the Knights halve the lead.

Staples regains control in the second half. Mueller and the red-hot Watkins make the final 4-1.

The Wreckers rest 5 players – 4 starters and an early sub – at Kennedy  Stadium. Bridgeport Central is down several players too. With goals from Shackelford, Watkins, Avery Mueller (2), Jordan, Thomas and Aidan Mermagen all score in the 7-0 victory.

St. Joseph is mired near the bottom of the table. But a wild 4-3 loss to Brien McMahon, and a 1-1 draw with league-leading Darien, have the FCIAC talking.

But Staples is on a roll. They keep their torrid scoring pace with two goals from Hoke, Watkins (off Shackleford’s 4th assist in 2 matches), Foster, Thomas all score; so do Douglas and Sam Vannart, both with their first varsity goals ever.) For the week, 13 different players contribute to the 18-goal total.

But the minnow stretch of the season is over. It’s time to swim with the sharks – or, more accurately, go Bear hunting.

Norwalk comes to the packed Hill with a 9-1-2 mark, sitting first in the league. Staples is 8-1-3, just 2 points back.

Staples presses early. Mueller’s laser corner kick is deflected just over the bar. Adams comes close too. Hoke works in tandem with Moreno and Mueller. Behind them, Smith has his best match in a Staples jersey. Guiduli and Hochhauser are steady in the middle, while Tobias shuts down the right side decisively.

In the 32nd minute Guiduli wins a loose ball, and races down the sideline. He serves Adams, who never hesitates. His volley rips into the back of the net.

The second half is more even. Greenberger and the defense keep the clean sheet though, including withstanding 2 hairy Norwalk free kicks from close range in the final 2 minutes. The 1-0 victory is one more classic in a great, decades-long rivalry.

The other Norwalk team – Brien McMahon – is having a strong season too. Staples scores in the 4th minute, with Moreno power-heading Mueller’s corner kick in, but a minute before halftime the Senators scrap in the equalizer. It seems to come in slow motion, with a pair of Wreckers unable to clear off the line The 1-1 draw brings high-flying Staples quickly back to earth.

The final regular season contest is a forgettable 3-0 win at Fairfield Ludlowe. Watkins and Jordan’s goals are sandwiched around a gorgeous volley by Tobias. It’s one of the most beautiful goals, in a season that’s seen many of them.

The Wreckers end FCIAC play with a 10-1-4 mark. It’s the most wins since 10 in 2011; the last time they lost just once in the regular season was 2008.

Now the real fun begins.

FCIAC Tournament

With only 5 points separating the top 6 teams in the FCIAC playoffs, the tournament promises to be tight.

Fairfield Warde (9-2-4, seeded 6th) arrives at Wakeman Field bent on revenge against #3, 10-1-4 Staples. They have not forgotten the Wreckers’ come-from-behind victory earlier in the month.

Just 56 seconds before halftime, Greenberger comes out to save at the top of the box. The Mustangs are awarded a controversial penalty. The shot is good – and suddenly the complexion of the game is radically different.

The Wreckers do all they can in the second half to draw level. Crosses, corner kicks, shots, rebounds – they’re all there. Bur Warde withstands every challenge, with focus and organization.

Staples keeps cool. But chasing a game can lead to counters. Warde knocks in an insurance goal, 3 minutes from time.

It’s a bitter defeat. The “second season” of FCIACs ends just 48 hours after the first, regular season one.

State Tournament

Eleven long days – and one first-ever tune-up scrimmage against Greens Farms Academy – later, the Wreckers open their first state tournament in 2 years.

Ranked 6th, they dispatch #27 Manchester with ease, in brilliant fall weather at Wakeman. Watkins opens the scoring with a 9th-minute penalty kick; Thomas power-heads Jordan’s corner kick 2 minutes before halftime; Hochhauser does the same 4 minutes after intermission, and Thomas blasts a shot off the far post to seal the win. All 27 healthy field players – plus sophomore keeper Sikorski – see action.

Conard is next, also at Wakeman. They are much better than their 7-7-2, #22 record. Staples does not take them lightly.

Tobias shuts down dangerous Anthony Catanzaro, while Thomas makes the most of his start up top. Ten corner kicks, and control of the tempo, give the Wreckers confidence. In the 59th minute, a bang-bang series of shots ends with a corner kick. Mueller serves; Moreno heads to Hochhauser, who comes forward on set pieces. He finishes calmly, from 5 yards out.

The Chieftains battle right back. Two free kicks in the final 2 minutes are cleared, by the staunch back 4 led by Hochhauser and Guiduli.

Astonishingly, in Staples’ 60-year state tournament history, they’ve never, ever faced a school 5 miles away: Fairfield Prep. Nor have they met in the regular season. A few preseason scrimmages is their only history together.

That includes this year’s 6-0 beat-down by the Wreckers. Both sides know this first-ever for-real matchup will be much closet. In fact, the game is at Fairfield University’s Rafferty Stadium because the Jesuits roared through their regular season 13-2-1, and snagged the #3 LL seed.

The Wreckers follow their game plan well, but not perfectly, through the scoreless first half. They earn 2 quick corner kicks, but no one crashed the box on the keeper’s bobble. Hoke and Thomas solidify midfield, but Prep gets players through. Hochhauser, Guiduli, Tobias and Smith catch them offsides often. Tobias has a very active day, going both ways with abandon.

In the 51st minute, Jordan earns a corner kick. He takes it himself. Watkins finds it with his head, delivering a powerful and much-needed goal.

It comes a minute after Guiduli halts the Prepster’s most dangerous threat. Three minutes after Watkins’ strike, Greenberger makes a masterful tip save over the top. Jordan follows quickly with a blast of his own.

As the Jesuits chase the game, Staples takes command. The back 4 – augmented by Foster – coolly work the ball out of danger. Liakh makes an impact too, while offensive work by Moreno, Adams and Thomas keep the hosts from committing fully to the attack. A sliding save by Greenberger 7 minutes from time snuffs Prep’s final real attempt.

The hard-earned win vaults Staples into the semifinal – their first time there since 2010. The opponent will be the Wreckers’ longtime foe, Farmington. The River Hawks eliminated Staples 1-0 in both 2016 and 2011. In 2006, Staples won on PKs. And in 2010 – at Waterbury’s Municipal Stadium, the site of this year’s battle – the upstaters scored on a late electrifying free kick, denying the Wreckers a second straight state championship.

The match starts an hour late, after #13 Cheshire goes to 2 rounds of penalties to upset undefeated, top-ranked Xavier-Middletown.

Tobias, Liakh, Mueller, Hoke and anyone else nearby keep a close eye on Matt Cense, Farmington’s wide-ranging striker. Without that weapon, the 7th-ranked River Hawks let Staples dictate the rhythm and style of play. The soft turf suits the Wreckers well. They are patient, with a possession, play-it-out-of-the-back style. They’ve got individual and team speed; they find seams, and spread the field,

With Jordan roaring into the corner and Watkins playing ferociously off him, the Wreckers open with 3 quick corners. Defenders Guiduli, Hochhauser, Smith and Tobias – unscored upon in the state tourney  — know when to step up and when to drop. They swing the ball wide, and cover for each other.

The 0-0 halftime scoreline is not worrisome. Staples  has been here before.

In the 46th minute, Greenberger saves well on a quick restart. Cense takes the ensuing corner – Farmington’s only one of the night. A shot bounces off the crossbar. Defender Dominic Gallo scuffs at the ball. Its cleared again – but the River Hawks celebrate.

The officials confer. The goal stands. It is the first ever of Gallo’s career.

The Wreckers go right back to work. Watkins, Tobias, Moreno, Foster – all pepper the keeper with shots. Mueller’s rocket is saved too.

Two corner kicks in the 73rd minute are denied. Another one, 3 minutes from time, is cleared.

Then comes another, with 2 to play.

And then comes the final whistle.

Staples’ dream of a 19th trip to the state finals – and a possible 13th crown – is shattered. So are many seniors. They’ve done exactly what they wanted to, all game long. The only thing they don’t do is score.

Reran reporter Dave Ruden has seen Staples often this year. He calls the match “beautiful and cruel.” He’s right: The wreckers outshoot Farmingtono 17-2, and lead in corner kicks 10-1.

Woog says: “I’m gutted for our guys. They gave it everything they had. They did everything we asked, with passion and poise. They had a superb season, and they are even more superb young men.

“For all they accomplished, they have no hardware to show. That will hurt for a long time. But I hope they realize what they’ve done, for Staples soccer, their school, and their town. They are as worthy of wearing the Staples ‘S’ as any championship team.”

Woog knows something they do not: It is his last game as head coach. After 19 years at the helm, and 46 coaching soccer in Westport, he knew when the year began that this would be his last.

When he steps down in January – making way for assistant coach Russell Oost-Lievense, like Woog a former Wrecker player – it is with joy, satisfaction, and a deep, abiding respect for what he calls “this wonderful 2021 team.”

Quick Kicks

One of the best upgrades in years is the new “locker room.” Tri-captain Jackson Hochhauser spearheads the summer project with former freshman coach Chris O’Dell. With lights, benches, hooks for bags and a whiteboard, it quickly becomes “home” for the Wreckers….

This year, Staples moves its home benches to the south side – to be closer to their new locker room ….

Coach Chris Flaherty’s reserves go 12-2-0, with tri-captains Kyle Ambrose, Lucas Carpi and Chase Watkins. Coach Elysee Joseph – like Flaherty, in his first year on the Wrecker staff – leads his freshmen to  10-1-2 mark; captains are Zac Belzer and Sebi Cruz ….

Robert Brickley – son of Neil Brickley ’71, a longtime supporter of the program – arranges for a season of livestreams. He enlists a variety of alumni and former coaches to help him with commentary. Hundreds of alums and other fans listen to the professional-sounding streams ….

The varsity, reserve and freshman teams raise $24,178 for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in an impressive display for the school-wide Push Against Cancer ….

Freshman Andrew Oppenheimer – who, like Zach Beebe, is not a goalkeeper, but filled in all season because the frosh have no keeper – sets a Staples record by saving 3 penalty kicks, in a big 2-0 win over Norwalk.

RECORD: 13-3-4

COACH: Dan Woog

CAPTAINS: Bruno Guiduli, Jackson Hochhauser, Murilo Moreno




The first real post-COVID year begins with only the 4th permanent coach in Staples boys soccer history.

Russell Oost-Lievense — the 2008 tri-captain, former Hartwick College player, and 6-year freshman, reserve and varsity assistant coach — takes the reins. Former coach Dan Woog says his former player and now successor “loves our tradition, understands our program, and will kick it up several notches in his own special way.”

After a summer’s preparation — including competition in the Norwalk league — the 2022 Wrecker team is formed. It’s perhaps the youngest in Staples history, with only 8 seniors, and a dozen sophomores.

A first-ever preseason scrimmage against Greens Farms Academy (picking up where the Wreckers left off, preparing for last year’s state tournament) ends 4-1. Then comes a 1-1 draw with Fairfield Prep, the team the Westporters eliminated the year before in states.

Avery Mueller fed Lucas Carpi for 2 goals at the Wethersfield jamboree. The Eagles are as young as Staples. That match is backed by 0-0 draws with Kingswood-Oxford and Tolland.

Regular season

Illness and 2 injuries force Oost-Lievense into some lineup changes, just prior to the opening kickoff. But the makeshift squad — 3 seniors, 4 juniors and 4 sophs — come through at Ridgefield’s Tiger Hollow.

The back line of Hunter Smith, Ben Douglas, Cole Lieberman and Alex Kuster hold the hosts at bay. In the 61st minute junior Dylan Hoke rises high to power-head in Avery Mueller’s lacing cross. Nick Sikorski’s big save preserves the shutout; Mueller finishes authoritatively to ice the important 2-0 win.

A packed Saturday hill at the home opener against New Canaan sees the blue-and-whites squander 5 first-half corner kicks. The Rams break the deadlock in the 61st minute on a solo slithering run. They retreat into a defensive mode (ut almost score again). Play gets chippy as the clock winds down. A deflection by Carpi’s head off Alex Laskin’s shot flies over the crossbar with 34 seconds to play. New Canaan emerges with just their 4th win ever, in 75 matches against Staples.

Looking for a reset at 2-0 Greenwich, a rejiggered lineup gives the Cards no quarter. Smith, Douglas, Lieberman and 1st-time starter Zach Beebe catch the home side offside several times. A heavy downpour makes the turf slippery. Just half a minute after intermission, an intercepted clearance and quick pass to Lucas Luzuriaga give Greenwich a bang-bang 1-0 edge. Campbell Gerrard — filling in for the injured Douglas — draws a foul. Mueller delivers a great ball to Jonny Costello, but the sophomore ricochets his shot off the crossbar. Mueller shoots high with 5 to go, and Greenwich’s counters keep Staples honest in the back till the end.

Going into the match at Danbury, Smith and Zach Gorin are sick. But junior back Adam Syah returns, after his own illness. A makeshift lineup — Douglas anchoring the back with Gerrard and sophomore Cormac Mulvey joining in; Hoke moving up to midfield with Laskin and sophomore Luca Escalarte — held the Hatters to a 0-0 draw.

With Loeffler Field unplayable — due to the accumulation of 64 years of wear, several years of poor maintenance by Parks & Rec, and a 2-day lacrosse tournament in July that tore up the grass — Oost-Lievense decides to play the rest of the season’s matches at Wakeman Field. It’s a difficult choice to give up tradition, and the best viewing site in the state, for the soul-less, off-campus turf. But it’s in the best interest of the team.

Westhill offers a wild start to their new home. Staples halts their scoring drought in the 33rd minute, when Hoke finds a loose ball in a goalmouth  scrum. The second half begins with an authoritative finish from Mueller. Then Mulvey’s cross is shouldered in by Matt Shackelford.

But a controversial penalty kick call gives the Vikings their first goal. Two minutes later, they pounce on a defensive giveaway; it’s now 3-2, with 19 minutes left. Six minutes later, Westhill knots the match after a poor clearance.

The game gets chippy. Ethan Cukier is saved, with 3 minutes to go. Suddenly, Shackelford picks up a loose ball 40 yards out. He takes 2 touches, then rockets a shot just inside the far post. His dramatic strike earns the win. The 4-goal output doubles that of the Wreckers’ first 4 matches. But the need for last-minute heroics rankles.

Everyone — including Wilton fans — expect an easy Staples win, against one of the weakest Warrior sides in memory. Their coach is home sick. The hosts gain confidence with a 0-0 deadlock, but 9 minutes from time — and just 30 seconds after making his first-ever varsity appearance — Chase Watkins’ corner kick is headed in by 6-4 defender Douglas.

Wilton equalizes a minute later. Two minutes after that, confusion in the back allows a 20-yard rocket. Staples is a man up for the final 5:17, after a 2nd yellow card, but the Warriors hold on for the surprising win. It’s their first of the year.

The morning of the first-ever regular season meeting with Glastonbury — part of the first-ever FCIAC/CCC Challenge pitting the top teams in Connecticut’s top 2 leagues, organized in part by former coach Woog — Oost-Lievense is not even sure he can field a full squad. He knew Lieberman, Smith and Laskin (concussion at Wilton) are out. Then he gets text after depressing text: Hoke, Gerrard, Beeby and Josh Deitch are all sick.

Coming off a demoralizing defeat at Wilton, things look bleak. Several reserves get the call. The makeshift starting lineup at FSA of 3 seniors, 4 juniors and 4 sophomores includes Watkins and keeper Steve Divino. He has not yet seen a minute of varsity time.

The Wreckers kick off into a substantial wind. And they kick up their game, big time. Playing smart, controlled soccer, and showing tons of heart, they go toe-to-toe with the 5-0 upstaters. Mueller leads the attack. Shackelford is saved brilliantly in the 11th minute. He almost connects again, from Cukier. Douglas, Mulvey, Kuster and Syah catch the Guardians offside 3 times. Escalarte and Gorin win balls at midfield.

Glastonbury breaks through in the 25th minute, on a slicing free kick. Two minutes later, they score on a ball over the top. They add 2 more before halftime.

But the Wreckers do not give up, give in or fade away. Jonny Costello, Elliott Galin, Ryan Sunjka and Santi Alfageme spark Staples. Mueller’s rip is saved, saving Glastonbury’s shutout. But despite the 4-0 scoreline, Staples heads home with confidence. They know they’re young. They know they lack their full lineup. They know too that they can pay.

Before Darien, Oost-Lievense names Smith as the third captain, with Douglas and Laskin. It’s a just reward, for his strong play, passion, and upbeat attitude. He responds by helping the defense catch the Blue Wave offside over a dozen times. Keeper Nick Sikorski sees just one goal, and only a few semi-dangerous chances. But that strike, with 7:37 left, is the only one of the day. It’s another bitter defeat, after doing nearly everything right nearly all afternoon.

But wait! Down 2-0 at home to Fairfield Warde, the blue-and-whites score 3 times in the final 12 minutes. The goals — following 5 scoreless halves, against a 4-0-3 team — rockets the spirits of a young squad that has seen more than its share of adversity.

The Mustangs score 2 minutes after halftime, then 10 minutes later. Chasing the game, Staples does not surrender. Mueller’s shot is saved, one-handed; then he shoots high. In the 68th minute, Hoke rifles in a penalty kick. Mueller is taken down in the box; Hoke nails his second PK. With 4:30 to go, Watkins’ seeing-eye pass finds Mueller. Sliding feet-first, he finishes dramatically. Poised, smart and confident, Staples manages the final minutes maturely.

They fall 4-1 to 8-0-0 Trumbull. But the battle is nowhere near as one-sided as that. Staples controls much of the 2nd half, after Mueller’s 54th-minute free kick.

Without Avery Mueller against Stamford (yellow card suspension0, Staples gets a first-ever varsity goal from Cukier. Then he gets is 2nd, on a header from Laskin’s free kick, for a much-needed 2-0 win.

Costello gets his first varsity tally; then Shackelford (2) and Escalarte strike against Bridgeport Central.

Principal Stafford Thomas’ Homecoming Weekend pre-game speech helps spark Staples to a 6-0 home victory against a weak St. Joseph side. Mueller nets 2; he assists Hoke; Costello gets 2 in 13 minutes, and Sam Rossini registers his first varsity goal.

Battling for a berth in the FCIAC and state tournaments, the Wreckers need a great effort at Norwalk. They get it, playing their best, most consistent 80 minutes of the season. But the Bears (9-0-3) plays excellently too. First-half highlights include Douglas snuffing a breakaway, and Sikorski saving in a crowd. In the second 40 minutes the Westporters have 3 good chances in a goalmouth scrum, and Gerrard halts a breakaway. In the 51st minute though a Norwalk cross is deflected into the net by a defender. Seven minutes later Dylan Thomas pops up to finish his own rebound; he gets an insurance goal 8 minutes from time. The 3-0 score does not show the evenness of the match. That’s little solace, as Staples enters the final week fighting hard tor post-season play.

Lucas Carpi’s 55th-minute goal (his first on varsity) electrifies Staples at Brien McMahon, and draws them level. But the Senators — who took the lead just 7 minutes earlier — notch 2 late goals. That lifts them to a 3-1 victory, in front of a large Senior Night crowd. It was a must-win for the hosts; they and Staples are now 6-8-1.

They are out of the FCIAC tournament; tied with McMahon on points, the Senators take the 8th and final spot on a 3-way tiebreaker. They desperately need a win at home against Fairfield Ludlowe, to avoid missing the state tourney for only the 2nd time in their 64-year history.

Mueller drives into the box. He’s fouled. Hoke takes the penalty kick — and scores! That’s all Staples needs (plus strong defense by Douglas, Smith, Gerrard, Lieberman, Alfageme and Laskin), and a solid save by Sikorski in traffic. The physical match grows more intense as time winds down, and fog rolls in. But it’s a huge victory, after one of the most difficult regular seasons in memory.

State tournament

There is a 2-week layoff between the Ludlowe match, and round 1 of the state tournament. Ranked #25, the Wreckers travel to #8 Wilbur Cross-New Haven.

Going into a steady wind, the Wreckers unveil a new, offensive-minded formation. They show good movement, but cannot penetrate into the 18.

The Governors have individual and team speed. In the 18th minute a Cross cross from the right is deflected across the box by a defender. The ball falls to the feet of Johnny Sanchez, who finishes cleanly. Twelve minutes later, the hosts double their margin off a mistouch.

Chasing the game after intermission, Staples plays one of their best halves of the year. Playing with poise and urgency, they are in control for large stretches. But a season-long inability to finish their few opportunities dogs them to the end.

It’s been a tough fall for the young Wreckers. All year long, they weathered adversity — including, but not limited to, injuries and illnesses. But with only 5 senior starters graduating, and players responsible for 18 of their 25 goals returning, the future looks strong.

RECORD: 7-9-1

COACH: Russell Oost-Lievense

CAPTAINS: Ben Douglas, Alex Laskin, Hunter Smith