It’s a long, and not very welcome, Staples tradition: A poor 1st game in the state tournament.
The reasons are many: A letdown after the physically and emotionally draining FCIAC tourney. Not taking a lower-ranked opponent seriously. Looking beyond the 1st round.
This year, there were 6 days between the FCIAC final and the start of the state “LL” (extra large schools) competition. The Staples coaching staff thought that was plenty of time for the Wreckers to come down from their post-championship high. They cautioned the squad about past difficult opening-round matches, the better to prepare for this one. But unfocused training sessions last week, and yesterday, had the coaches worried.
Conard was better than their 8-6-2, 28th-seed record — that much Staples knew. But they had no track record against the Chieftains — the last time the teams met was in 1972. What kind of game would unfold was anyone’s guess.
Despite the past few days, the Westporters who gathered in the third-base dugout for the traditional pre-game meeting were a focused bunch. They were ready for whatever came down the hill on this unseasonably warm day — a hill that started with few fans at 2 p.m., but filled tremendously once school let out at 2:15.
The blue-and-whites followed their game plan, taking the game to the visitors, while trying to limit dangerous free kicks into the box. The Wreckers had the upper hand early, and in the 14th minute Drew McNair celebrated his 17th birthday with a long free kick into the packed penalty area. Brendan Lesch flicked on; the keeper, way out, batted it away. It was re-headed back over the line by Mike White, and a defender biked it out. But the ball had already crossed the goal line, and after a brief discussion with assistant referee Stan Kapinski, center official Jesus Zornoz a pointed to the center spot — gooooal!
Staples picked up the pace even more. McNair worked the right side, Mike Scott the left side, and Brendan Lesch and Alan Reiter controlled the middle. From the 25th minute on the hosts were knocking on the door.
They opened it a bit more in the 36th minute. Another McNair free kick bounced once. Once again White was there, this time kneeing it in for a 2-0 lead.
It would have been nice to get a 3rd goal before halftime — and Staples did. With 2:06 to play White took off on a spectacular footrace from midfield. He got knocked once, then twice. He powered forward like the Energizer Bunny, but finally was taken down in the box. Zornoza immediately signaled for a penalty kick. Reiter converted solidly, and the Wreckers surged into intermission with a solid lead.
Conard showed 3 forwards to start the 2nd half, but central defender Mikey Fitzgerald, outside backs Sean Gallagher and Frankie Bergonzi — both of whom had excellent outings — and sweeper Jack Hennessy were strong, steady and disciplined. Keeper Michael McCarthy handled his chances easily, and was on fire with outlets and free kicks.
With Staples resting their starters for much of the 2nd half, the pace slowed a bit. But the Wreckers were still in control, and in the 74th minute sophomore Alex Tonsberg fired a great shot. It was knocked away for a corner kick — and Tonsberg took it. His cross was dead-perfect to Steven Denowitz. The newly-Mohawked defender — who had brought himself up for the set piece — headed hard into the left corner, for a 4-0 edge.
The Chieftains got on the scoreboard with 2 minutes to play, when Patrick Gosselin finished a goalmouth scramble. But the late tally did nothing to dent the Wreckers’ victory.
As they headed up the hill, they learned that Newtown shut out Ridgefield 3-0. That sets up a very tough Round of 16 match, Thursday at Loeffler Field (2 p.m.). The Wreckers have never beaten the Nighthawks in state tournament play. In 2002, the northerners eliminated Staples 4-1 in the Round of 16. In 2004, Marcus Tracy led his squad to a 7-1 pasting in the state semifinals — the Wreckers’ worst tournament loss ever. The next year — Ross McGibney’s senior season — it was Newtown 2, Staples 1, in a fight-to-the-finish Round of 16 match. Final score: Staples 4, Conard 1. Season record: 18-2.
QUICK KICKS: Staples outshot the Chieftians 18-10, and led in corner kicks 6-1….
Westhill — which had to win a playdown to reach the round of 32 in the “LL” tournament — battled undefeated, #1 Glastonbury to the final seconds before the Tomahawks won, 1-0. Other “LL” 1st-round scores: Greenwich 1, Norwalk 0; Masuk 2, Cheshire 0; Trumbull 3, Bristol Central 0; Amity 3, Danbury 0; Fairfield Prep 2, EO Smith 1 (OT); New Milford 3, Stamford 0; Hamden 3, Pomperaug 0; Shelton 2, Hall 0; Southington 1, Norwich Free Academy 0….
Conard is coached by Adam Linker. In 1989, playing for Glastonbury, he paced the Tomahawks to a 3-0 shutout of Staples in the state semifinals. It was the Wreckers’ only defeat of in their 15-1-3 season.