The schedule said tonight’s FCIAC semifinal — postponed 1 day by snow — pitted #8 New Canaan against #4 Staples.
The Rams — upset winners for the 2nd year in a row over #1 Norwalk in the quarters — play far better than a #8 team; their 5 ties this year dropped them down.
The Wreckers, meanwhile, were out to prove the doubters wrong: All those who said they were inconsistent, unfocused, lacked the killer instinct — whatever. Their goal was a 4th straight FCIAC title — and 5th in the past 6 years.
Staples started out at warp speed, thanks to David Hoffman’s early run into the box. In the 3rd minute Max Hoberman turned the corner, and slashed a cross. Hoffman headed sharply on goal — and only a brilliant save by keeper Scott Levene kept New Canaan out of an early hole.
Hoffman, Hoberman and Dylan Hoy penetrated well. They were sent in often by Steve Smith’s seeing-eye through balls. Dylan Evans was working the left side strongly.
Ben Root — who 24 hours earlier was sick — and Harry Birch patrolled the middle. Their strong physical presence, smart positioning and quick releases allowed defenders Alex Tonsberg, Taylor McNair and Jake Malowitz to keep always-dangerous Jon-Luke Ferrandino and Steven Valente relatively at bay.
The Wreckers moved the ball well laterally, then sliced forward. But the Rams were potent, particularly when Levene punted. He roamed forward to take free kicks, even at midfield — but Wrecker keeper James Hickok was ready. Several times Hickok leaped high to save, drop-kicked 70 yards or threw to open men — and Staples was back on the attack.
The 1st half was the blue-and-whites’ best of the year, in terms of possession, movement, attacking intensity and defensive organization. But they knew they could do better.
Heeding keeper coach Tom Henske’s mantra that the 1st and last 5 minutes of each half are crucial, they started the 2nd half with laser focus. The backs overlapped, and McNair — playing his best game as a Wrecker — got forward. Smith and Birch found seams. Hoberman, Joe Greenwald and Terence Gibbons pressed.
But New Canaan’s defense was up to the task. They did not break.
In the 64th minute, Malowitz made a clutch save on a Ram breakaway.
Staples worked to the end, and almost broke through 30 seconds from time. Suddenly though, it was on to overtime.
The Rams’ best chance of the game came 3 minutes into the 1st OT. But Hickok came up with a save that equaled Levene’s in the 3rd minute. The nail-biter continued.
Staples kept pressing. The Rams seemed to be playing for penalty kicks.
In the 99th minute, the Wreckers earned a free kick. It was almost the exact same time, and the same spot on the Fairfield Ludlowe field — but the opposite end — as in 2006, when Ben King’s 100th-minute header gave the Wreckers a 1-0 semifinal win over Greenwich.
Smith nearly replicated the feat. But this time there was no celebration. It was on to PKs.
Staples won the toss, and elected to shoot 1st. The initial shot missed wide. But Hickok saved the Rams’ 1st shooter — his counterpart, keeper Levene.
Max Hoberman nailed his kick; New Canaan’s 2nd attempt was high.
Root’s shot was true; so was the 3rd Ram’s.
Smith connected. So did New Canaan. After 4 rounds, the Wreckers led 3-2.
The 5th kick could win it for Staples — but it sailed high. The Rams had a chance to tie PKs, and send it on to another 5 shooters.
Except Hickok came up with one of the biggest saves of his life. He stopped the tying attempt cold. The Wreckers on the sidelines raced to join their teammates at midfield. Together, they raced to the sidelines to embrace their Superfans.
It was a joyful celebration. Staples had played not just a strong 80 minutes — but a smart, tough, hard 100. They earned their victory.
And in just 48 hours — at 7 p.m. Friday, on the same Fairfield Ludlowe turf — they’d get a chance to gut out another one. Final score: Staples 1, New Canaan 0. (PKs, 3-2.) SEASON RECORD: 12-2-4.
QUICK KICKS: After the game, head coach Dan Woog gave huge praise to the entire defense. “For 52 years, Staples has relied on strong defense,” he said. “This game ranks up there with some of our best defensive efforts of all time.”