Rams show an offensive side
Build 3-0 lead and hold off Bears
By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — It does not take newcomers to the New Canaan High School boys soccer team long to figure out coach Eric Swallow’s philosophy.
Offensive play is not worked on or mentioned during the first week of practice, a shock to the system for youth players bred on the importance of scoring.
“We defend before we attack,” Swallow said. “I’d rather win 1-0 than lose 4-3. We take a lot of pride in our defense.”
Thus there was many a raised eyebrow when Matthias Hunkeler’s second goal, two minutes into the second half, gave the Rams a 3-0 lead over Norwalk in last night’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference Tournament semifinal game.
Surprise at New Canaan’s unexpected explosiveness and the seeming ease with which it was rolling to its second final in three years.
But those hot summer days working on defending paid off when the Rams withstood a furious comeback attempt and held on for a 3-2 win at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
“People say we struggle to score goals, but that’s because we are trying to prevent them,” Swallow said.
The second-seeded Rams (13-2-2), the only team to qualify for the tournament each of the last three years, will attempt to win their first title since sharing the crown with Stamford in 1997 when they face Greenwich in tomorrow night’s final. The Cardinals, the top seed, were a 1-0 winner over Trumbull in last night’s other semifinal.
In a rematch of last year’s Final Four contest, when the Bears needed overtime to reach the final, the turning point came after Peter Campbell’s goal staked the Rams to a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute.
Norwalk had controlled the play to that point but was unable to finish its chances. When Campbell struck, the Rams started working the field, winning every 50-50 ball for the next 30 minutes.
“After that first goal we were a little shell-shocked,” Norwalk coach Kurt Simonsen said. “We didn’t play the way we’re capable of. They made hard runs to balls and we watched them go by us.”
Hunkeler made it 2-0 in the 34th minute on a beautiful play. Fergus Campbell delivered a ball into the box, and Hunkeler went down low to head it by Norwalk goalkeeper Mike Surace.
“I knew I was diving for it all the way,” Hunkeler said. “It was a perfect pass.”
Meanwhile the Rams’ defense was doing a stellar job containing Anthony Fraioli and Mike Fraioli, who lead Norwalk with 20 and 14 goals, respectively.
Simonsen moved both brothers to opposite wings, hoping to open up some individual one-on-one situations, but Anthony Fraioli had few touches, partially because the Bears were attacking from the right side and partially because of the marking by New Canaan’s Andy Thompson, who stuck to him like a Post-it.
Hunkeler appeared to erase any lingering mystery when he drilled home a clearing ball off a corner kick in the 42nd minute for a 3-0 lead.
“We were in the huddle at halftime and said we had to go all out and score quickly,” Hunkeler said. “We knew Norwalk was a good team and we needed another score. That was huge.”
Little did anyone realize at the time just how huge.
“We came out for the second half and I thought we had the right frame of mind,” Simonsen said. “Then they get that quick goal.”
If there was a benefit, it was that the Bears were faced with a sudden sense of urgency that was reflected in their play.
One minute after Hunkeler’s goal, Anthony Fraioli got free but was stopped by Chris McKennan, the Rams’ goalkeeper.
Finally, in the 52nd minute, the Bears broke through when Ronald Machado converted a crossing ball from Mike Fraioli to cut the deficit to 3-1.
And with 2:36 left, Anthony Fraioli made it a one-goal game, banging home a rebound after a McKennan save.
“We got a little nervous there,” Hunkeler said. “Give all the credit to Norwalk. They pushed back.”
But the Bears never threatened again, as New Canaan was able to possess the ball and kill off the remaining time.
“We didn’t quit, I’ll say that,” Simonsen said. “Another five minutes and who knows.”
Swallow said the seeds for his team’s run this season may have been sown in last year’s playoff loss to the Bears.
“At the end of that match it was two good teams going at each other and it could have gone either way,” he said. “I think we grew from that. This year we have tried to temper our emotions from game to game. We don’t get too high or too low.”
And, most of all, the Rams can turn back to those humid August days and remember that the best offense is a good defense.
Rams boot Bears from FCIACs
By DAVID LIBERATORE
FAIRFIELD — Matthias Hunkeler scored a pair of goals as New Canaan jumped out to a 3-0 lead before holding off Norwalk, 3-2, in Wednesday’s FCIAC boys soccer semifinals in the first game of a double-header at Fairfield Ludlowe.
Second-seeded New Canaan, which also defeated Norwalk 2-0 last Thursday, will face No. 1 Greenwich at 8 p.m. Friday in the FCIAC championship game at Ludlowe. Greenwich beat fourth-seeded Trumbull 1-0 in Wednesday’s second semifinal.
Peter Campbell gave New Canaan a 1-0 lead midway through the first half, scoring on a header off of Patrick Randall’s free kick from 40 yards out.
The Rams then controlled the game for the remainder of the first half, seemingly beating Norwalk to every 50-50 ball.
“(New Canaan) made hard runs to balls that we watched fly by us,” Norwalk coach Kurt Simonsen said. “We looked a little shell-shocked right after that first goal.”
New Canaan (13-2-2) went up 2-0 with 6:09 left in the opening half, as Hunkeler easily directed a header past Norwalk goaltender Mike Surace. Hunkeler was unmarked for the goal after receiving a chip-in from along the far side by teammate Fergus Campbell.
The Rams then appeared to put the game away just 1:32 after halftime, as Humkeler got his foot on a loose ball 20 yards out and flared a shot inside the right post for a 3-0 lead.
“To give that goal up after halftime was difficult,” Simonsen said. “Especially since I thought we had the right mindset coming out of halftime.”
But Norwalk stopped the bleeding 10 minutes later when Ronald Machado chested in a ball sent to him by Mike Fraioli. Fraioli accelerated down the near sideline and drilled his centering pass to Machado, who put the ball past New Canaan goaltender Chris McKennan.
“Norwalk is one of the hardest teams to beat,” said Pete Campbell, a senior midfielder. “Mike Fraioli has a lot of heart and I respect him a lot. He picked up the tempo and got them back in it.”
Norwalk (12-3-2) pulled within 3-2 on a goal by Anthony Fraioli with 2:36 left in regulation. Anthony Fraioli had the ball pop out to him after it bounced off a few players, scoring from 15 yards out.
“I knew Norwalk would come back,” Swallow said. “They are too tough mentally and they’re too well-coached not to.”
The Bears, however, couldn’t manage to get a shot on goal in the closing moments, as New Canaan, the only school to qualify for the league playoffs in each of the last three seasons, avenged a 3-2 overtime loss to Norwalk in last year’s FCIAC semifinals.
“I think our kids grew from last year’s loss,” New Canaan coach Eric Swallow said. “We have a lot of senior leadership on this year’s team.”
The Rams usually win tight, low-scoring games. However, they won in a different manner Wednesday, scoring three goals in the game’s first 42 minutes.
“We defend before we attack,” Swallow said. “We spend the first week of practice each year just on defensive organization. We take a lot of pride in our defense.”
McKennan finished with nine saves for New Canaan while Surace ended up with seven saves for Norwalk. The Bears took six corner kicks, compared to just two for the Rams.
Norwalk outshot New Canaan 10-8 in the contest.
“It’s very difficult to beat Norwalk twice, especially in a span of six days,” Swallow said. “The four teams playing here tonight in the FCIAC’s could also be some of the final four teams playing in the states.”
Norwalk lost in the FCIAC championship game a year ago before finishing as state runners-up in the Class LL tournament.
“Our guys have been resilient all year and they were resilient again tonight,” said Simonsen, whose team will look to make another run in the state playoffs beginning next week.
“If we had another four or five minutes, who knows what would have happened? But whether New Canaan won 3-0 or 3-2, they’re still the ones playing Friday.