The improbable run continues
Boys soccer one more upset away from taking home state crown
Rams 1 more upset away from taking home state crown
WEST HAVEN -- It's a match many who played in it are already calling the best they've been a part of.
The New Canaan boys soccer team upset its fourth consecutive opponent in the Class L CIAC bracket to advance to Saturday's championship. The latest victim was its highest ranked yet, as the Rams won 4-3 (2-2) on a second set of penalty kicks over No. 2 Watertown (15-2-1) Tuesday night at West Haven High's Ken Strong Stadium.
"I've never been in a game like this," junior Jon-Luke Ferrandino said. "We showed guts making every single penalty kick."
After both teams went 5 for 5 in the first wave of penalty kicks, the Rams got the win after Watertown's Chris Spagnoletti sent the team's eighth PK wide right and New Canaan goalie Scott Levene stoned the 10th and final attempt from Chris Fonseca.
"I've never been in a game where we take the lead, in overtime, then we go down in overtime and then tie in overtime -- then it goes into a second set of PKs," Levene said. "That's probably one of the most exciting games I'll ever experience in my life."
The No. 19 Rams went 9 for 9 on their penalty kicks -- 10 for 10, truly, as a penalty kick from the foot of Levene tied the game at 2 with 53.6 left in the second overtime.
New Canaan (11-4-4) was able to send the match to penalty kicks thanks to a ridiculous sequence in the final minute. Ferrandino had a corner kick lined up, and he changed his normal approach.
"There wasn't much time, and I usually don't try bending it in, but I tried going for it," Ferrandino said. "Keeper got his hands on it, and a player on their team headed it in the goal, and the kid pulled the [crossbar] and cleared it with his hand."
It was an absolute scrum, and after the referees deemed an illegal touch, Levene got the signal from Rams head coach Victor Sanchez to tie the game and keep the team's season going.
"It was a header going in, but since he saw it going in, he put his hand there to stop the goal," Sanchez said. "At that moment, we sent everybody up and knew there was so much time left so we had to pack them into that (penalty) box as much as possible."
Levene had seen tendencies from Watertown goalie Dave Hughes, but he ignored what he watched in the film room once he put the ball on the line.
"We saw some footage of PKs, but I didn't base it off that," he said. "I said, `I'm going to pick my side, we're going to tie and we're going to go home with a win."
He picked right -- figuratively and literally -- and sent the game into penalty kicks.
"We've always said that if we make it to PKs we'll make it no matter what," Rams senior Rory Shepard said.
The game went 80 minutes without a goal before all chaos broke loose. Rams sophomore striker Steven Valente gave his team a 1-0 lead with 27 seconds left in the first of two 10-minute overtime sessions. The goal game after Ferrandino took a pass off a header down the left side of the field. The shot was deflected by Hughes, and then Valente rocketed in from a few yards out -- just minutes after limping off the field following a shot to the groin -- and hammered home the score.
The drama was only beginning.
The Rams tried as best they could to keep the Indians at bay, but the second-seeded team kept coming in waves until Watertown senior Nick Poletta delivered a booming shot that tied the game at 1 with 5:01 left in the second overtime.
And 91 seconds later, New Canaan's season suddenly was about to be over. The sequence that led to the Rams trailing by a goal unfolded like this: Watertown's Leonard Mamudi came down the left side of the field and tried to kick his shot past Levene. Levene was forced to dive for the save, did so successfully, but after the ball caromed from his gloves no one came down to stop junior Arian Hoxha, who cleaned up the mess and pushed it in the right side of the goal with 3:30 left.
"After we scored that first goal we were pretty pumped and probably thought it was over, I guess, which is why everyone let up on our defense," Shepard said. "After they scored that second goal, I think everyone kind of thought it was over."
Said Sanchez, "The two goals in four minutes of double overtime was really a heart-wrenching moment for all of us."
The Rams have now knocked off teams seeded second, third, 11th and 14th during this run that's become unpredictable and even a bit magical.
"There's been consistency, but we always adjust according to who we're playing against," Sanchez said. "One thing I did notice throughout this run so far: They (opponents) all have height advantage."
And the coach had plenty of praise for Watertown's ability to switch fields quickly -- as quickly as any opponent New Canaan had faced all season.
"They were very productive with their counter attack," Sanchez said. "Although I thought we held them off for the majority of the game. ... I warned our team: We have to be careful with the long ball, the direct ball, because they had a forward who was technical, had some speed and size."
Shepard said the Indians were "the best team we've beaten by far."
The remarkable, upset-filled postseason run for the Rams will reach its climax Saturday afternoon, when they will play against the winner of Wednesday night's tilt of top-seeded Bunnell vs. No. 13 Berlin.