STONINGTON — Donald E. Palmer’s $1.2 million turf field surface paid immediate dividends for both Stonington High soccer teams.
The Bears’ girls’ and boys’ squads, seeded eighth and seventh respectively in their Eastern Connecticut Conference tournaments, played quarterfinal home games Monday against much higher-seeded teams.
The girls faced top-seeded St. Bernard and the boys hosted No. 2 seed Windham. Stonington was one of four sites to host quarterfinal doubleheaders. Plus, St. Bernard and Windham did not apply to host games, paving the way for the tournament home doubleheader at Palmer.
“Ideally you would like to see the higher seeds host quarterfinal games and then have one site for the semifinals to draw a crowd,” St. Bernard coach Chris Ghiglia said. “But it’s not up to me.”
Added Windham boys’ coach Kevin Kimlingen, “I’ll have to voice this opinion at the ECC meeting, but it’s not right to have the higher seed play at the lower seed’s field. Plus, we’ve only played two games on turf all season.”
Kimlingen, though, admitted his ECC Small Division champs would have been hard-pressed to beat Stonington anywhere, especially by the way the Bears played Monday.
In one of their most impressive showings this season, the Bears dominated from start to finish to post a 1-0 victory and advance to the semifinals Wednesday against East Lyme at a site to be determined.
St. Bernard topped the Stonington girls 3-1 to advance to the semifinals Wednesday.
“Playing a pressure tournament game and winning it is an invaluable experience for a young team like ours, which hasn’t been involved in games like this previously,” Stonington boys’ coach Paul deCastro said. “We didn’t play Windham this year since they moved to the Small, but I thought we had a good chance to win, looking at comparative scores.”
The Bears (11-4-2) held a 10-1 shots on goal edge in the first half, winning most 50-50 balls and pressuring the goal thanks to the nifty passing and footwork of Leo Aguirre and Chris Tsang.
With 2:15 left in the first, Stonington broke through to take a 1-0 lead. Nic Rosa pushed a pass from the right flank to the feet of Ethan Murphy about eight yards in front of the right goal-post. Murphy redirected a kick with the outside of his right foot to the far corner of the goal past a sprawling Windham goalkeeper Vasileios Papadam to put the Bears on the board.
Though Stonington continued to dominate — Windham didn’t send a shot on goal until Bear goalie Steven Zelepos easily caught a 28-yard direct kick shot — it couldn’t push across a back-breaking second goal.
“Stonington had the better of the play, but we’re a dangerous offensive team and we still had a chance for a counter-attack and breakaway,” Kimlingen said. “I didn’t feel like we were out of it.”
Windham’s Jullian Parilla boomed a 25-yard kick two yards wide of the right post with 6:30 left for the Whips’ first solid scoring chance.
Stonington fullbacks Jonah Roberts, Chandler Ray and Jake Delappa did a solid job, booting Windham’s long passes out of the defensive end and into the midfield to ignite Bear offensive pushes.
The Bears nearly scored a second goal when Tsang spurted for a breakaway and was dragged down from behind, provoking a penalty kick call with seven seconds left. His shot, though, was blocked by Papadam, creating a fleeting triumph for the Whips as the gun sounded.
“This is one of our better games,” deCastro said. “Windham is a physical team, but we took it to them from the start and controlled with a nice passing attack. To make the final four of the ECC tournament is a nice accomplishment for this group.”
St. Bernard .......................3
Stonington girls’ coach David Walsh felt the Bears had a chance to upset St. Bernard, based on the Bears’ strong second half of the season. But the Saints (14-3) used their size and skill to position themselves for a number of early scoring opportunities.
With 14 minutes left in the first half, the Saints’ Shannon Amarello passed from the center 30 yards out to Talia Coleman at the left post. Coleman sent a left-footed shot from five yards out into the far right corner for the 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Ali Patterson headed a ball to Coleman, who wound up and one-timed a right-footed high shot from 25-yard out over the head of Gabi Hoops to make it, 2-0.
“We have 94-pound players and they are just so much bigger,” Walsh said. “They mauled us at their place (4-0 Saint win) in the regular season, and this game was allowed to be physical, which did not favor us. One of their good forwards (Allison Regan) just runs through people and keeps on going. They are a tough team.”
Stonington (7-8-2) broke the shutout with 10 minutes left in the first half when Sarah Thomas rocketed a perfectly-placed 29-yard direct kick just inside the crossbar for a goal.
The Bears didn’t have many other strong scoring chances within the flow of play after that direct kick.
Coleman added her third goal with 34:31 left in the game, making a steal and scoring from 15 yards out on the right side into the far left corner.
“We’re a sophomore, junior team and we’ll be back in the ECC tournament in the future,” Walsh said.
“These kids can play. We had a rough start but we overcame issues and had a good second half of the season. Our goal is to advance past the first round of the states and I think we can play with anyone.”