Class LL boys soccer: Staples ends Norwalk’s title defense
By Steve Geoghegan
Hour Staff Writer
WESTPORT — The Staples High boys soccer team kept saying a goal would come and when it came, it was like a lightning bolt.
Joe Pravder’s missile of a shot from 25 yards out hit the back of the net in the last minute and rewarded the Wreckers for their perseverance on their way to a dramatic 1-0 victory over FCIAC rival Norwalk in a first round game of the Class LL state tournament on Tuesday at Loeffler Field.
“That’s soccer,” Staples coach Dan Woog said. “I’ve been around enough to know that goals are not easy as they seem. You can say something from the hill, how did they miss that, but when you’re out there, it’s really tough. That’s the beauty of soccer, to me, and that’s why our kids love this game.”
Tenth-seeded Staples (11-5-2), which was knocked out of states last year by the Bears, advances to the second round. The Wreckers will play at No. 7 Newtown at 2 p.m. Thursday. Newtown advanced with a 2-0 victory over No. 26 New Britain.
Norwalk, the No. 23 seed and defending state champion, finished with a 7-8-3 record in what turned out to be a surprising season after the Bears lost several key players to graduation from last year’s Class LL championship team.
The Wreckers had been shut out in their last two games, and they had numerous chances to score, especially in the second half. Norwalk’s defense, led by Sergio Mandujano, Jose Canahui, Brody O’Brien and goalie Tyler Dalton held up despite constant pressure.
“I thought our back four did a great job of weathering the storm and keeping their composure,” Norwalk head coach Chris Laughton said. “It’s a credit to Staples. They outplayed us and probably deserved to win. But I’m just proud of the guys for the way they fought and how hard they played the entire game.”
One unfortunate bounce for the Bears, however, was all Staples needed.
With the ball deep in Norwalk’s end of the field, a cross by the Wreckers was headed out by a Bears defender. The ball found its way to Pravder on the left side of the field. He took a touch with his left foot then blasted a shot into the top right corner with 1:39 remaining in the game.
“We expected it,” said Pravder, a sophomore who admitted it was one of the best goals he had ever scored. “I thought we were the better team. I saw it coming and I’m really happy to get it.”
As far as where Woog would rank it in terms of the best goals he’s ever seen, he said, “Right now it’s my favorite.”
Even though both teams have been offensively challenged this season, each one had some opportunities prior to Pravder’s heroics.
Staples defender Andrew Puchala, who was back in the lineup after missing several games due to injury, had several headers wrapped up by Dalton (22nd and 61st minute), shots by Charlie Leonard (46th) and Jose Alanis (66th) and a shot by Norwalk’s Miguel Argueto to the left post that was stopped thanks to a diving effort by Noah Schwaeber (47th).
“It was a team victory,” Staples’ Jack Scott said. “We had a lot of chances and we didn’t finish as often as we would’ve liked. But a 1-0 victory is still a win and we’re moving on.”
Woog credited his team’s strong defensive effort, the trademark of the program, and said Connor Weiler and Gabe Pensak, two players who have battled injuries all season, along with Puchala, “did a great job of locking things down.”
For the game, the Wreckers had a 9-2 advantage in shots on goal and a 12-2 edge in corner kicks. Dalton made eight saves and Schwaeber had two stops.
“We fought for everything and they (Norwalk) fought for everything,” Woog said. “I told Chris that he didn’t deserve to go out this early. You can call it revenge for last year but I wouldn’t because this is a different team and he has a different team. It was just a hard-fought game that was a ton of fun and I’m happy for our guys.”
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