Cromwell’s Carson Stermer (13) tussles for the ball with Somers’ Domenic Giachello.
Cromwell’s Carson Stermer (13) tussles for the ball with Somers’ Domenic Giachello. Photo – Dave Burnham

Dave Burnham, Rare Reminder, November 20, 2014

The Cromwell Panthers boys soccer team’s dream of retaining its CIAC Class S championship turned into a semi-final penalty shootout nightmare when they lost 2-1 (4-2 on penalties) against Somers on Nov. 11th at Middletown High School’s Rosek-Skubel Stadium.

With the score deadlocked at 1-1 after 100 minutes of pulsating end-to-end action, the daunting prospect of a dramatic penalty shootout to decide both teams’ hopes and dreams lurked in the swirling mist that covered the field.

Nicholas Murzda stepped up first for the #1-seeded Spartans and calmly found the corner of the goal. His strike was cancelled out when Derek Parker scored for #4 Cromwell. Evan LaMontagne slotted the ball into the net for Somers to be followed by Ardit Statovci replying for the Panthers to make it 2-2.

Alex Murzda gave the Spartans a 3-2 advantage with Panthers’ goalkeeper Ryan Murphy on deck. Murphy aimed his shot to the left-hand corner at around knee height, but was denied by Somers’ goalkeeper Kyle Trusch diving to his right and making the save as Murphy buried his head in his gloves.

Jacob Regulbuto made it 4-2 to put the pressure on Cromwell’s Dylan Davis, who stepped up and went for the right-hand corner. Trusch smothered the shot to make the save and secure the win, ensuring Somers a spot in its fourth state title game in five years and ending Cromwell’s hopes of repeating as Class S champs.

“Ryan volunteered to take the penalty,” said Cromwell head coach Jonathan Harder. “He usually scores them, but tonight the ’keeper guessed right. That’s the sad thing about penalty kicks if you’re on the losing end, it’s a 50/50 chance.”

As expected for a game of such magnitude, the players started a little nervously but soon settled. Despite both teams creating good chances, it was scoreless at half time with Cromwell having four attempts on goal to Somers’ one.

With 10 minutes gone in the second half, the Spartans’ Corey Brown picked up a long midfield pass from Alex Murzda. The lively attacker’s first touch bounced off a defender’s heel and fell to Michael Szleszynski, who immediately passed it back to Brown. On his second touch, Brown’s right-footed shot went underneath a diving Murphy to give Somers the lead and Brown his 33rd goal of the season.

The Spartans held the advantage for five minutes until Ardit Statovci collected a header from Jared Grant and fired a bullet-like shot past a diving Trusch for the Panthers’ equalizer.

Somers and Cromwell, which have won five of the past six Class S championships, proceeded to put on a display that was worthy of a championship final for the remaining 25:00, creating chances that would have avoided overtime and the dreaded penalty kicks.

With 23:25 left, Somers hit the crossbar, leaving the Cromwell defense to scramble the ball clear of danger. A few seconds later Statovci limped off the field with a leg injury, giving everyone involved, including the 800-plus fans in attendance, time to take a breath.

From the restart, the teams gave it their all, trading attempts on goal and escalating the excitement level. Statovci returned with 9:00 left as the Panthers continued to look for the winning goal. They nearly had it with 3:30 left when Parker’s shot went just wide of the post.

“That felt like a final to me,” said Harder. “It was a very high-paced game with no let down.

“There’s not much you can do in a game like that with two athletic teams. You’re pushing hard for two halves and two overtime periods. We had chances but we couldn’t capitalize on them. We talked about switching formations, but we took away their space so well, especially in the second half, that there was no need. We just kept going at them.

“We just wanted to wear them down,” Harder continued. “They don’t play a lot of overtime in the CCC [Central Connecticut Conference]. We’ve had plenty of overtime games, especially the last two weeks. We just wanted to press the issue and I thought we did a good job. We just couldn’t get the ball in the net.”

While both teams were tired from an enthralling 80 minutes, the two 10-minute overtime periods re-ignited them as they went full tilt for the winning goal.

The second overtime period saw Somers put together several attacks to keep Murphy busy. The senior goalie had to make a sliding save with his legs from Brown with 7:30 left and a minute later got a helping hand from the woodwork when Domenic Giachello hit the crossbar with a looping shot.

Grant ran the ball across the Spartans defense, made a superb cut back to his right and shot through four defenders to force a diving save from Trusch for a Panthers corner
with 4:25 of overtime left.

“We did a great job end-to-end and we held them up defensively,” stated Harder. “There’s not much more I can say. We played our game and we did what we normally do. They didn’t let us possess as much as we normally like to.

“We had our chances to score and we just didn’t do it. I think everybody felt the next goal was coming. Corner kick, corner kick, header, cross, it just wouldn’t go in the goal. Somers had their chances as well. They could have won it in regulation.

“Our seniors have been together since they were youth players. They came in as freshmen and we had four wins. We made it to the tournament the next year, and then last year, we won the whole thing.

“They’ve seen the highs and the lows. There’s a lot of emotion right now. We’ve put our hearts and souls into this season. They’re a great bunch of guys. We’re going to miss them,” Harder said after the sad ending to the Cromwell seniors’ scholastic careers.

“It’s a bitter pill, but the kids will look back and realize we had a great season winning the Shoreline Conference Championship title and coming this far,” added Harder.

Somers and #7 East Hampton tied the Class S final 0-0 after 80:00 of regulation and two overtime periods at New Britain’s Willow Brook Park on Nov. 15th.