HARTFORD — Every boys soccer team in the Eastern Connecticut Conference knows how difficult it is to win a state championship.

Heading into the 2019 season, the ECC could claim just one outright champion (Ledyard in 2001) and three co-champions (Montville shared a state title in 2010, East Lyme in 2002 and Stonington in 1993) in the tournament's history ... excluding E.O. Smith's brief stay in the conference 30 years ago.

But Saturday at Dillon Stadium, Stonington High's 11 seniors and coach Paul deCastro put themselves in elite company by beating Ellington, 3-1, to capture the Class M crown — the Bears have won two straight CIAC tournaments.

The Bears' victory sandwiched two Class M championships around a 2020 pandemic-shortened season that did not include a statewide competition.

"Winning a second one gives us the feeling that we're maybe the best team ever to go through Stonington High School," Bears senior midfielder Will Sawin said. "Last year were thankful to play any games, but we really wanted to get back to the state final after winning it. A good handful of us play year-round for Southeast Soccer Club, so we were thinking and talking about winning it all again for a great way to go out."

It was the first of two state championship games for Stonington on Saturday afternoon. The field hockey team would later lose to North Branford, 2-0, in the Class S finals.

The third-seeded Bears (21-1) dominated the No. 12 Knights (14-5-2) in the first half to take a 2-0 lead on goals by Sam Montalto and Billy deCastro. But the second half was a different story — the Bears were shocked by a more aggressive Ellington attack, and Kevin Desrocher scored 51 seconds into the period to slice the lead in half.

The Knights, who lost to Stonington 1-0 in the 2019 title game, looked as though they were on their way to tying the game with just over 4 minutes left. Owen Hoffman got behind the Bears defense and was one-on-one with Bears goalie Brandon Tavares, but he shot far wide of the net.

"When they had [that opportunity], I thought it was going to be 2-2," said deCastro, who's in his 14th season as coach. "We got pretty fortunate there."

Later, Montalto and Drew Johnson each had quality chances, but Johnson's shot was stopped by Ellington goalie Nathan Bertune and Montalto shot wide.

Stonington then ended any more suspense. With the Bears on the attack, Montalto controlled a chip from Johnson, deked a defender and scored past an on-rushing Bertune for a 3-1 lead with 2:33 left.

"That had to be the peak of my career," said Montalto, who holds the school record with 105 goals. "To seal the deal, it was an adrenalin rush."

The Bears have won 21 straight since a season-opening 6-2 loss to Ledyard, which was defeated by Ellington in the semifinals, 3-2 in overtime.

"This senior class has been though a lot," deCastro said. "We had a brutal draw in the states, but we must have been pretty good to get through it. Yes, winning two in three years is special, but I was just thinking about this one."

Stonington possessed the ball in its offensive half for most of the first half and finally broke through with 27:41 left to take a 1-0 lead. Sawin lightly headed Cole DeVoe's throw-in toward the left post past Beturne. The ball squibbed toward the net, where a charging Montalto was free to ram the ball home.

"The header might have gone in but if the ball is in front of me, I'm kicking it," Montalto said.

Ellington made the most of its few trips to the offensive half. Tavares snatched a chip directed to Knights senior Eric Thibert with 28:56 left to erase a potential shot on goal. Stonington back Conrad Tobiassen made two nice plays, slide tackling Ellington's Ryan Sardinha to break up his open shot and force a corner kick, then clearing the kick.

With 19 minutes left in the first half, Ellington made a steal in the Bears backfield, and James O'Conner sent in a pass to Sardinha at the top of the scoring circle. Tavares ran out to make a sliding kick save on the dangerous 1v1 attempt from 14 yards out.

The Bears capped their dominant period by scoring on a set play off a direct kick. Sawin and Drew Johnson both faked direct kicks before Sawin curved a cross from 23 yards out on the left side to the right post, where Billy DeCastro redirected it into the net with a header for a 2-0 lead with 9:28 left before halftime.

"That's a play we don't have in the playbook," Sawin said. "Drew and I worked on it in practice two weeks ago. Sometimes your instincts take over."

Ellington answered quickly in the second 40 minutes. Stonington kicked off, but the Knights quickly gained possession. When the Bears were unable to clear a ball, Desrosher sent a hard shot from 14 yards out past Tavares and inside the right post. Less than a minute had elapsed in the second half and the Knights had cut the Bears' lead to 2-1.

But that would be Ellington's final goal of the season.

"We sat back a bit in the first half but had to pick things up, which we did," Ellington coach Jon Bassett said. "We played well but you can't make mistakes against a great team like Stonington."

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