Norwalk closes in on FCIAC playoff berth
By Bob Birge
NORWALK — An impressive turnaround after a slow start has put the Norwalk boys soccer team in a position where it controls its own destiny for an FCIAC playoff spot.
The formula for the Bears this week is simple: two wins, and they’re in.
They took care of the first part of that equation Monday with a 4-1 victory over Darien at Testa Field on goals by Jose Canahui, Sergio Mandujano, Jon Ceja and Patrick Barrantes. Ceja’s goal came on a penalty kick.
Norwalk (7-5-3 overall) is 6-2-1 since a 1-3-2 start. The Bears jumped into seventh place in the FCIAC standings with 24 points, two ahead of idle Fairfield Warde (6-5-4).
The Bears began the season with a lot of inexperience after graduating most of the starters from last year’s Class LL state championship team, but they could be peaking at the right time.
Norwalk concludes the regular season at Fairfield Ludlowe on Wednesday (7 p.m.).
“It’s not how we start (the season), it’s how we finish,” Ceja said. “We’re not going to live in the past with what the other guys did last year. We have to do our own thing. It took us a little bit to get that rhythm going. Eventually, we did. Great teams, like last year, hit their prime at the right time. I think we’re doing that.”
The race for the FCIAC’s final two playoff spots will go down to the final day of the regular season on Wednesday.
Darien (5-8-2) was eliminated with Monday’s loss.
At times Monday, Norwalk was loose on defense and goaltender Tyler Dalton did have to make nine saves before being replaced by Tito Aponte with three minutes left. Darien struck first as John Mackie converted a cross by Jack Kniffin five minutes into the game.
Offensively, however, the Bears played as well as they have all year, roaring back with four unanswered goals, including two in a 80-second span early in the second half that gave them control.
They had a lot of fun on senior night, matching a season-high in goals, also achieved in a 4-1 win against Harding on Oct. 15. Two of the goals Monday were scored by seniors (Mandujano and Ceja).
“The seniors have really been digging in and working and fighting hard for their season to continue,” Norwalk coach Chris Laughton said. “The seniors realized the season was going by pretty fast and it was going to end before they knew it. They realized they had to step it up and they’ve been doing that the last few games.”
Norwalk did a solid job with possession in the first half, but didn’t get the equalizer until the 14:42 mark when Canahui, a junior captain, used his speed to break free and beat Darien goaltender Liam Rischmann with a shot inside the left post.
“We’re playing great soccer, we’re clicking,” Ceja said. “Hopefully, we can transfer that to the FCIAC playoffs.”
The second half was all Norwalk. Five minutes in, Mandujano just missed finishing a throw-in from Ceja, but it resulted in a corner kick for Barrantes that Mandujano, a senior captain, converted with a header to give Norwalk a 2-1 lead with 34:52 left.
With 33:32 remaining, Ceja was tripped in the box. Rischmann guessed right, Ceja went left, and suddenly it was 3-1.
“Senior night, that’s what you look for. You look to score in front of your home fans,” Ceja said of the four-goal outburst. “The two captains, Sergio and Canahui, played an amazing game. Patrick (Barrantes) set me up for the PK. I did the easy part.”
After Dalton made a few key saves to keep it a two-goal game, Barrantes scored with 10:59 remaining to seal the victory. The Bears continued to apply pressure until the final minutes.
“A lot of people underestimated us this year,” Laughton said. “They thought this season was going to be a rebuilding year. I’m proud of the way these guys have responded. We’ve had a good tradition here the last few years of being successful and putting out teams that play hard. We’re finally getting to that, so it’s better late than never.”
Westhill (Staples on Tuesday) and Danbury (at Greenwich on Wednesday) will be heavy underdogs in their regular- season finales, but the Bears would prefer to clinch a playoff spot on the field Wednesday.
© The Hour Newspaper.