Greenwich soccer returns to FCIAC finals with victory over Staples

Greenwich High's Alejandro MacLean fights for possession of the ball during Monday's FCIAC semifinal game against Staples. — Paul Silverfarb photo

Greenwich High’s Alejandro MacLean fights for possession of the ball during Monday’s FCIAC semifinal game against Staples. — Paul Silverfarb photo

Monday night’s victory in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference semifinals was highly satisfying for head coach Kurt Putnam and the rest of the Greenwich High School boys soccer team.

After losing 23 seniors and all but three starters last year to graduation from last year’s team that captured the FCIAC championship, in addition to dealing with a plethora of injuries to start this season, hopes weren’t too high for the Cardinals to make a repeat run at the conference title.

Instead of listening to critics, Big Red took it upon themselves to get back to the championship game. And they did exactly that by upending Staples High School 3-2 in the semifinal round held at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

“This is an awesome feeling right now,” GHS junior Nick Bartels said. “It’s our main goal this year. A lot of people doubted us, thinking that we couldn’t do this with losing all those seniors. We fired back and we hustled our butts off every day to get us in the position where we need to be.”

The victory put Greenwich High School in the FCIAC championship game for the second consecutive year. The game will be played Wednesday night at Norwalk High’s Sam Testa Field. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.

If someone came up to Putnam at the beginning of the season and said his team would be once again playing for the FCIAC championship, the head coach would have thought the person was joking at first.

“I’ll take this because our goal was really to get back to the state tournament,” Putnam said. “It wasn’t that we had low expectations, but we had realistic expectations. The first was to get back to the state tournament and see where it takes us from there. Everybody that has been out on the field has played their part to try and lift us as much as they can. It’s a combination of a lot of players playing at their very best.”

With the score knotted at 2-2 and Big Red on the attack and more aggressive from the start of the second half, Bartels got the ball off a gorgeous pass on the left side of the net and uncorked a shot that hit the top left corner for the eventual game winner with 24:26 to play.

“I felt great out there,” Bartels said. “It was an awesome feeling to hit the ball for that third goal.”

While the Cardinals were thrilled with the outcome of the game, the beginning of the contest was far more nerve-racking. Only three minutes into the game, Staples’ (10-6-2) Gabe Pensak went for the throw-in deep in the Greenwich zone. The long throw to the net had several big bounces and somehow found the back of the net.

The rules state that a throw-in must touch someone before it goes in the back of the net in order for the goal to count. Although Pensak was awarded the goal, somewhere between the throw-in and the goal, the ball apparently touched someone on the pitch.

Big Red's Bernardo Franca pushes the ball downfield during Monday's game against Staples in the FCIAC seimis. — Paul Silverfarb photo

Big Red’s Bernardo Franca pushes the ball downfield during Monday’s game against Staples in the FCIAC seimis. — Paul Silverfarb photo

However, it didn’t take long for GHS to respond. With the Cardinals pressuring the ball down the Staples’ zone, Bartels closed down one of the defenders on the sideline and put a pass to Alejandro MacLean, who put a nice finish on the ball for the 1-1 tie with 33:42 left in the first half.

“A goal is a goal and I can’t argue it,” Bartels said. “Maybe it wasn’t the most deserving goal, but we really came back and it put a fire under us. We were mad at the call and we put three really good goals in.”

Staples almost took the lead again with 28:42 left in the half, as Josh Berman took a high shot form 10 yards out, but GHS goalie Joe DeMuyt made the stellar leaping save to knock the ball out of harm’s way.

Staples kept the pressure on and reclaimed the lead with 20:34 to play, as Josh Berman scored on a stellar header off a throw-in and Nate Argosh was there to direct the throw-in to Berman.

Again, Greenwich was able to tie the game. With 13:47 left in the half, Greenwich was awarded the corner kick. On the play, Christopher Galeano was in front of the net and headed the ball high and in the direction of Bartels. Bartels went up for the ball and used his head to gain control and push the ball in the back of the net for the 2-2 tie.

“We were in a deficit twice in the first half,” GHS senior Dan Ozimir said. “This is nothing new for us. We were down early to Westhill and came back and we were down other times this season and came back. We are a team with a lot of mental toughness and we can bounce right back.”

In the second half, Greenwich came out with a lot more aggression and controlled the tempo throughout most of the half.

“What I said to them after we played (Staples) the first game is that there is only one way to play against a physical team that closes you down quickly,” Putnam said. “You have to close them down quicker and win first ball much more. We did that in the second half and it showed.”

With 36:10 to play, David Michaud had a broke through the middle of the field and charged to the net, but the Staples’ defense was able to stop Michaud’s shot at the last second.

Three minutes later, GHS had another shot at net, as Bartels had a golden look at the net off a Ozimir crossing play, but Bartels’ shot sailed wide.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable to get back to the FCIAC finals,” Ozimir said. “It’s where this program should be. Knowing that going into the season not a lot of people thought we were going to make it and we had to face so many injuries this season. It shows the mental toughness of this team.”

In the next few minutes, MacLean had two looks at giving Big Red the lead, but both his shots led to strong saves by Staples’ goalie Noah Schwaeber.

“Maybe they were desperate enough to go back to the finals again and tried to defend their title,” Putnam said. “I didn’t think we were that bad in the first half.  (Staples) had a lot more joy playing the way they wanted to play in the first half than they did in the second. They struggled in the second half to get us where they needed to be, which was down in the corners. I just asked them that we have to win more of the first ball, rather than try to win the second ball. Usually that takes care of things and they did that in abundance in the second half. We probably won 75% of the first ball in the second half.”

Not only was Monday night’s victory help Big Red get back to the championship game, but GHS was also able to exact revenge on the Wreckers for earlier in the season. Back on Oct. 15, Greenwich was unable to figure Staples out and fell 2-0. The loss snapped a streak in which Big Red went 5-0-1.

“The way we played them in the first game of the season was bad, “Putnam said. “We were terrible. It was one of those defining moments for us. What were we going to do with this now? Were we going to use this as a catalyst to take ourselves to the next level or are we going to rest on our laurels and say that it’s been a good season, all things considered? They responded.”

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