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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
COACH: Dan Woog
CAPTAINS: Surya Balaji, Sam Liles