Vanessa Benjamin

Vanessa Benjamin had 15 goals and four assists this season, leading Stonington to an 11-1-1 record. | Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — Three years ago, Stonington High's Vanessa Benjamin made a decision that changed the direction of her soccer career.

After playing academy soccer at the prestigious Oakwood Academy in Glastonbury, Conn., she made the decision to give that up and play for Stonington.

Oakwood is an hour away and that was one challenge. But she said there were other important reasons, too.

"I wanted to focus on my education, and I figured doing high school (soccer) I could focus on my education and still play the sport I love so much," Benjamin said after the Bears' 2-1 victory over East Lyme on Tuesday night. "And if I wanted to play in college, I can still do that. I just felt like it was a win-win, and I got to play with all my friends. I think it was the perfect decision."

It's worked out perfectly for Stonington, too.

Benjamin had a goal and an assist in the win against the Vikings, and she leads the team with 12 goals this season to go with three assists. For her career, she has 37 goals and 14 assists.

Stonington scored the winning goal with 11:54 remaining in Tuesday's contest, and, predictably, Benjamin was involved.

Rachel Sabbadini took a corner kick from the left side that Benjamin was able to get a head on. The ball then hit off the East Lyme goalie, bounced off the crossbar and fell to center back Amelia Caron, who had come forward on the set piece.

Caron converted from a few yards away.

"Rachel hits a very consistent corner and she dropped it right into the 6-yard box like she usually does," Caron said. "V (Benjamin) headed it, and I was there to finish it."

In the first half, Benjamin gave the Bears a 1-0 lead with 11:28 remaining in the first 40-minute period. The play started with a corner kick by Sabbadini. The Bears got off a shot after the corner that bounced off the Vikings goalie. Benjamin then drove home the rebound for the goal.

Stonington had two corners and scored after both of them. It has become a lethal weapon for the Bears as the season has progressed.

"Rachel hits a very consistent ball, well paced and well served," Stonington coach Jennifer Solomon said, echoing Caron's comments. "Against Bacon Academy (in the team's only loss), we just missed numerous headers and we changed how we approach corners. We've scored on corners almost every game since.

"The girls are always hoping and looking to get a corner, and Rachel just hits it every time."

East Lyme tied the score about nine minutes into the second half on an impressive individual effort by talented junior midfielder Meredith Healy. She was able to elude two Stonington defenders with her foot skills before scoring from about 18 yards out to the left post.

Healy has good speed, good skills and can deliver the ball with authority. Stonington goalie Tori LoPresto redirected a bullet from Healy over the crossbar with about 16 minutes left that would have given East Lyme (3-5) the lead.

Stonington improved to 8-1-1, but without a state tournament to play for due to the conronavirus pandemic, it has made for a different kind of season.

"It's definitely heartbreaking that my last year we don't get that opportunity," Benjamin said. "But we didn't even know if we were going to have a season due to COVID. I'm just glad we are able to get out here and have one last hurrah."

Caron said the team was aiming for a spot in the state tournament after coming up short last year.

"That was one of our goals after we didn't make it last season. It's unfortunate," Caron said. "One of our goals was to be undefeated, and with the exception of that one loss, we've held strong."

Solomon said having an opportunity to just play will have to be enough. The team will still have an opportunity to compete in a "postseason experience," but it will not be a state tournament.

"We have a great group of kids and leaders. We are a team that could have contended across the state, so it's a little frustrating," Solomon said. "But we've had more games than we thought and there will be a postseason. The silver lining is we got a season."

Benjamin, meanwhile, may have another soccer season next fall, too. Or she may not — she plans to be a nurse practitioner one day, and that's the priority.

"If soccer is available at my school, I will play. If it's not, I will focus on nursing," she said.

Stonington next travels to Norwich Free Academy on Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. game.

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