Bears stunned again
By John Nash
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK – Norwalk High senior Nick Zuniga walked directly through the middle of New Canaan’s postgame meeting and embraced Rams’ head coach Victor Sanchez and one of his assistants.
He quickly turned around, gave the Rams players a congratulatory compliment, and then walked away from Testa Field, into the darkness of the Norwalk night. Sometimes, Superman’s cape simply isn’t big enough to carry an entire team.
For the second straight season, New Canaan and Norwalk met in the first round of the FCIAC boy soccer playoffs; the 13- 1- 2 Bears as the top seed, the 8-3-5 Rams as the No. 8 seed. And, for the second straight fall, New Canaan pulled out another stunning upset, knocking the host Bears out of the league playoffs with a 2- 1 victory.
The Rams had answered Zuniga’s goal early in the second half with two of their own in the game’s final 14 minutes to pull off the upset and advance to Tuesday’s semifinals against Staples, a 1-0 winner over Greenwich.
“There’s nothing to lose. We’re the underdog. It’s a great place to be,” said Tim Pritchard, whose direct kick goal from the left curled in with 13:42 left to tie the game at 1- 1.
“We wanted revenge. We played them on Monday and they smacked us around (in a 4-2 loss), so we wanted to come back and show them they couldn’t just smack us around.”
In the first half, the Rams proved that last Monday was a long time ago, matching the Bears in possession time while also forcing sophomore goalkeeper Svet Kozak to make four saves.
Likewise, the Bears threw plenty of pressure at Scott Levene, but the Rams goalkeeper was also up to the task, stopping five shots to preserve a scoreless halftime tie.
The Bears came out in the second half loaded for, well, bear.
It seemed as though Norwalk grabbed a 1-0 lead just minutes into the half when Mike Broncati curled a corner kick into the New Canaan goal. It appeared that Levene reached inside the plane of the goal line and slapped the ball out, but the neither the linesman or referee in the three-man officiating system ruled it a goal, so the game remained scoreless.
It wasn’t long before Norwalk struck again.
Santiago Muriel sent a high through ball over the New Canaan midfielder where it bounced once and landed that the feet of a streaking Zuniga, with Rams defender Robert Valente, right on his hip.
As Levene came off his line to challenge, Zuniga flicked a looping shot over the goal before diving himself to avoid a slide tackle challenge. The ball found the net and the Bears a 1-0 lead.” I felt pretty confident we’d get another one to make it 2- 0, but we just didn’t take advantage of our opportunities,” Norwalk head coach Chris Laughton said.” But that one goal should have been enough.” The Bears seemed poised to go for the jugular.
Zuniga looked to beat a Rams defender down the right sideline, but the physicality on the play went uncalled and Levene was given a goal kick after the ball went out of bounds.
Seconds later, on the far end of the field, the Rams were awarded a direct kick to Kozak’s right, approximately 20 yards out.
Pritchard sent the shot directly on the goal with Kozak leaping and slapping at the shot rather than punching it out. The ball rolled off the goalie’s finger tips and into the back of the net and just like that it was a new ball game.
“We were in that position last year with them, too,” said Jon-Luke Ferrandino.” We had our backs against the wall and we came back and won it.” Seven minutes after tying it, the Rams took the lead.
Steven Valente fed a pass to Ferrandino, who raced up the left side line with the ball, using his speed to create just enough space from the Norwalk defender.
He then booted a low shot inside the far post to make it, 2-1, Rams.
“Steven played me a great ball,” Ferrandino said. “I took a touch and I just had to make sure I turned my hips on the ball. The defender was right on my tail, but I was able to get a half foot on him and I was able to pull the trigger on it.”
It was minor miscues like that, Laughton said, that cost his team.
“We make stupid mistakes,” Laughton said. “We gave them a goal and let them back in the game and you can’t do that in the playoffs. You think you’d learn, but that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and having the same result. But give New Canaan credit. They fought, they played hard and they put us away.”
Levene only had to make three saves in the second half, giving him eight for the game.
Kozak finished with six saves for the Bears, who will await the start of the state tournament.
As for New Canaan pulling off the shocking upset two years in a row, Sanchez summed it up like this: “There’s no secret,” he said. “It’s just reaching down deep inside and playing hard. The boys came out strong for the entire 80 minutes. We had to leave it on the field and make every play count and that’s what we did.”
© The Hour Newspaper.