Bears brush off Conard
By MATTHEW DORAN
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK — The Norwalk High boys soccer team wasn’t just playing for the right to advance in the state tournament Tuesday afternoon.
The Bears were also playing for Andres Torres.
The standout senior forward was forced to sit out the first-round game against No. 29 Conard after being issued a red card after the conclusion of Norwalk’s loss to New Canaan in the first round of the FCIAC playoffs 10 days ago.
No one wanted to see such a brilliant career end with Torres sitting on the bench.
“He’s been helping us so much scoring goals, so we figured we were going to win this for Andres,” junior Nick Zuniga said. “We didn’t want this to be his last game.”
The fourth-seeded Bears made sure of that with a solid 1-0 victory over Conard in the first round of the Class LL tournament on a cold and windy day at Sam Testa Field.
Zuniga scored the only goal of the match off a great give-and-go pass from sophomore Santiago Muriel just 2:03 into the second half in a game that was much more one-sided than the score might indicate.
Norwalk used its clear advantage in speed and overall skill to dominate time of possession, and finished with a 24-5 edge in shots. Freshman goalie Svet Kozak needed to make just one save to post the shutout for the Bears (15-3), whose defense alllowed only a handful of legitimate scoring chances.
Norwalk will now face No. 13 Simsbury (11-2-4) in the second round Thursday. The game is tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m.
Simsbury posted a 4-2 victory over No. 20 Brien McMahon on Monday.
Torres, who has scored an area-best 27 goals this season and is among Norwalk’s all-time leaders with 60 markers in his career, will have at least one more game to try to improve on his gaudy numbers.
“He’s been such a leader for us and the guys really rallied behind him,” Norwalk head coach Chris Laughton said. “They wanted to make sure they got this win for him. They didn’t want to see him go out without playing in a state tournament game.”
Norwalk also bounced back after losing to New Canaan in penalty kicks despite being the No. 1 seed for the FCIAC playoffs.
“After the way the FCIACs went down, it was good to see the kids come back and respond this way,” Laughton said. “We played well from start to finish and really didn’t allow many opportunities. I thought we controlled the play for the entire 80 minutes.”
Conard’s game plan was to win with defense. Head coach Adam Linker knew his team couldn’t match Norwalk’s speed and skill, so instead of attacking the goal with a strong wind at their backs in the first half, the Chieftains played conservatively, hoping to stretch the game out as long as possible.
“Our game-plan was to take away the minutes of the game so an 80-minute game became a 40-minute game,” Linker said. “We knew individually they had a lot of guys who were going to hurt us, so were staying compact and playing more of a defensive, counter-attack style.”
That plan worked over the first 40 minutes after Norwalk failed to score despite producing at least five excellent scoring chances. Conard goalie Luke Powers made two diving saves on Chris Puente and Kevin Joslyn in the final 10 minutes to keep things scoreless at halftime.
The Bears did succeed in keeping the ball in Conard territory with the wind in their faces.
“In the first half I thought we did a good job playing the ball on the ground and really taking the wind out of effect,” Laughton said. “We knew if we could get through the first half we would be successful because they would have the wind against them.”
Conard’s plan to beat the Bears with defense got blown to pieces after Norwalk struck early in the third minute of the second half.
Zuniga made the goal happen after dribbling past two defenders in the middle of the box. Zuniga dumped the ball off to Muriel on the right side and Muriel tapped it right back. Zuniga then onetouched it past Powers inside the right post for a 1-0 lead.
“When I laid it off to him I thought he was going to keep it,” Zuniga said. “But I kept running and then I saw the ball coming back to me and I just hit it. It was a nice pass.” Norwalk absolutely dominated after that, finishing the second half with a 12-1 advantage in shots. The Bears had a number of chances to increase their lead, including a shot by senior Jake Zuniga that hit the crossbar with 8:00 left. But Norwalk really didn’t need another goal the way it was controlling play.
“We were forced to open things up in the second half, but that didn’t work to our favor,” Linker said. “We knew this was going to be a tough assignment to beat a team like Norwalk. It ended up being a pretty tall order.”
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