Stingy E.O. Smith ends Norwalk’s season
By MATTHEW DORAN
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK — The Norwalk High boys soccer team could have packed it in early this season.
The loss of three starting defenders would have been enough to cripple even the strongest of teams.
But thanks to the efforts of backup players like Mauricio Pino, Manny Arteaga and Adam Beil, here they were battling traditional powerhouse E.O. Smith in the second round of the Class LL state tournament.
It would have been even easier for the seventh-seeded Bears to finally let go of the rope after falling behind 2-1 in the second half with a fierce wind whipping straight into their faces.
But Norwalk only got stronger.
In fact, the gritty Bears didn’t apply their best pressure on goal until the final five minutes of the second half, hitting the 10th-seeded Panthers with a flurry of offensive pressure that spoke volumes about a team that just would not go quietly.
“We haven’t quit all year long,” Norwalk head coach Kurt Simonsen said. “We weren’t going to start now.”
But the wind, and an even stronger E.O. Smith defense, ended up being too much to overcome and the Panthers held on for a 2-1 victory Thursday afternoon at Sam Testa Field.
E.O. Smith (15-3), which has won 14 straight games after opening the season 1-3, got one huge stop by goalkeeper Mark Best and steady play from defenders Neil Schoppmann and James Kissane to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinal round against No. 3 Newtown.
Best needed to make just six saves, but supplied the turning point in the victory after stuffing Norwalk junior Mike Fraioli on a point blank shot off a corner kick by Anthony Fraioli to preserve a 1-1 tie with 1:05 left in the first half.
Junior Kyle Wallace scored the go-ahead goal with 30:41 left in the second half on a direct kick from 30 yards out, and Schoppmann and Kissane spent the rest of the contest using their speed and strong field awareness to ward off a furious Norwalk rally.
Over the course of the first half, Schoppmann and Kissane hardly let the ball touch the ground. They always seemed to be in perfect position to either knock the ball out of their end or get in the way of a Norwalk run.
“The strength of our team is defense,” said Best, who has posted nine shutouts since allowing eight goals over the first four games. “Everyone was back and in position, and that’s what we’ve relied on all season.”
Norwalk finished the season 13-4-2, but walked off the field knowing it had given every last ounce of effort. E.O. Smith had the wind at its back in the second half, and controlled the time of possession. But Norwalk still had more quality chances because of its late surge and finished with a 17-9 advantage in shots.
“I think overall we were better than them,” Simonsen said. “They won the game, and they deserved to win because they worked real hard. But we had some really good opportunities down there, but the bulk of them we just swung and missed or knocked them wide. I really think we were a little better.”
Norwalk had the wind at its back in the first half and had the ball inside E.O. Smith territory for much of the first 40 minutes, but never really tested Best.
E.O. Smith actually got on the board first on a goal by senior Camden Wilbur in the 21st minute. The only goal Norwalk scored came on a penalty kick by Anthony Fraioli to tie the game 1-1 with 16:22 left in the first half.
“They played real well defensively,” Simonsen said. “They played the wind well defensively, which is something we didn’t do.”
The Panthers were willing to give up offense for defense in the first half. When Wilbur scored the first goal of the game to give E.O. Smith a 1-0 lead, the Panthers suddenly felt invincible.
Wallace started the play with a direct kick from 30 yards out on the right, flipping a cross toward the left post. T.J. Kramer got a head on the ball and it was stopped by a Norwalk defender. But instead of knocking the ball out of harm’s way, the Bears tried dribbling it out. The ball ended up on the foot of Wilbur and he banged it past Norwalk goalkeeper Mike Surace for a 1-0 lead.
“That was definitely huge,” Best said. “The ball was in our end most of the first half, and when we got that first goal, it made it seem possible. We’re always positive, but getting that first goal, we were like, ‘We can definitely do this.’ Right there, I knew we were going to win.”
Anthony Fraioli easily buried his penalty kick inside the right post after Mike Fraioli was pulled down on the left edge of the box by Kissane, then gave the Bears a chance to take the lead when his low corner kick from the right side somehow made it all the way into the center of the box.
The ball went right where Norwalk wanted it to go: Onto the foot of Mike Fraioli, but Best spread his arms out wide like a crane, giving Norwalk’s junior sniper no place to shoot. The ball rocketed right into Best’s chest and the Bears went into halftime tied.
“That was a big play,” Simonsen said. “We had two or three good knocks at it, but the kid held his ground. If that goes in, things are very different.”
Fraioli actually hesitated for an instant before shooting, and that split second gave Best time to collect himself for the game-turning save.
“The ball was right there, so I just pounced on it,” Best said. “If they kicked it right away, I might not have had a good enough grip on it.”
With the wind at its back E.O. Smith slowly began applying pressure and scored the go-ahead goal with 30:41 when Wallace ripped a hard right-footed shot that knocked off the right post and deflected off the hands of a diving Surace (seven saves).
Once in the lead, the Panthers took no chances, leaning more on the strength of their defense than the help of the wind.
“They were patient,” Simonsen said. “They didn’t dive in. They didn’t bite on a lot of our runs. They were patient defenders. Well organized and well coached.”
The Panthers made just one mistake, leaving Anthony Fraioli unmarked on the left hashmark off a feed from John Kahlden with 26 minutes left in the second half, but the FCIAC’s leading scorer couldn’t get a shot off.
Norwalk had a couple more chances like that as it pressured the goal over the final five minutes, moving the strong leg of Mitchell to the front line for added offensive punch. But each time a Norwalk player got in position to shoot, something got in the way.
The loss marked the end for nine Norwalk seniors, including Anthony Fraioli, who completed a brilliant season with 24 goals.
“What no one realizes about Anthony is before this year he waited three years to play the position he knew he could play,” Simonsen said. “He played behind (Steve) Cenatiempo, playing behind (Tommy) Mattera, kids like that. He’s waited for his opportunity to be a big-time player and he responded.”
Also playing their final games were Surace, Kahlden, valuable midfielder Jon Colangelo and Mitchell, who held the defense together as the Bears weathered change after change on the back line.
“I can’t say enough about that kid,” Simonsen said. “In the second game of the season, he got his second yellow card, and he played the whole season under that kind of pressure. He’s grown up more than anyone I’ve ever seen from his freshman year till now, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”