Dave Burnham, Rare Reminder, November 13, 2014
There’s an old adage in sports that states “games are won on the practice field” and that’s why Wethersfield girls soccer head coach Emily Fanelli ends every training session with her team practicing penalty kicks.
The clairvoyant coach’s approach paid off at Cottone Field on Saturday, Nov. 8th, when amidst cheers and tears her #7 Eagles punched their ticket to the CIAC Class L semifinals by beating #18 Pomperaug in a nail-biting 9-8 quarter-final penalty shootout.
The game was deadlocked 1-1 at the end of regulation play and after 20 frantic minutes of overtime that saw both teams hit the net again, the teams could not be separated with the score at 2-2.
Sophomore defender Megan Darrell was the first player to step up for the Eagles. She wasted no time slotting the ball past Pomperaug goalie Cheyenne McDougall. Her score was cancelled out when Kendall Cathcart put the Panthers on the board.
The tension increased when Wethersfield missed penalty number two and Pomperaug scored. The fourth round started with Nicole Murphy scoring for the hosts. This was followed by Eagles’ goalkeeper Summer Budaj diving low to her left to pull off a great save from Ariana Persson.
With the scores again equal (3-3 after four rounds) both teams traded scores until round nine. Julia Martin calmly walked up and sweetly slammed the ball into the corner of the net. Jamie Collimore was next up for the visitors. She aimed for the corner but her effort was blocked by another diving Budaj save to make it advantage Eagles. Gabby Scacca was next on deck for Wethersfield and she sent the delirious home fans spilling onto the field in celebration when she scored to seal the win and keep the Eagles’ playoff dream alive.
“This feels great. After my second save I thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to do this,’” said a jubilant Budaj. “We’ve worked so hard as a team to get where we are. We came to play and everybody was ready for it. We’re in the semifinals and we’re here to stay.”
Budaj’s saves were a relief to her mom, Colleen, the WHS softball head coach. “I’m glad that’s over. I can breathe again now!”
The standout goalkeeper’s heroics were commended by her coach. “Summer is a leader. She’s a star. She controls my backfield and she’s the player every coach wants to have in goal. Summer’s comfortable with her feet. She’ll come out for any ball and she has clean hands. It’s easy with her. I’m confident with her in goal for penalty kicks,” said Fanelli.
“We practice taking penalty kicks every single session,” the WHS head coach continued. “Call it foresight, but that’s how we end our practices. The girls have had plenty of experience with this. It was very tense, but my players were calm and they were able to focus on putting the ball into the corners of the net.”
Prior to scoring penalty number three, captain Kayla Generis “cleared my mind completely. You just need to block everything out. It’s like a black sheet all over you. You’ve just got to go and give it your all.
“I’m lost for words right now, but I’m so proud of my team. I said we weren’t going to plateau and we haven’t. We’ve made it this far so why stop now? We’re going to the championship and we’re going to win it.”
Coming into the quarter finals, Class L was wide open after the top three seeded teams (East Lyme, Masuk and RHAM) were all beaten in the second round. Pomperaug came to Wethersfield having beaten #18 Naugatuck, 5-0, in round one before putting #2 Masuk away, 3-2. The hosts had a first-round bye and beat #23 Branford, 2-0, in round two thanks to goals from Nicole DiLoreto and Jane Rumley.
The temperature at Cottone Field may have been cold, but the knock-down, drag-out quarter-final action on the field was red hot. The game was played at a fast pace from the offset and the Wethersfield attack looked threatening against a well-organized Pomperaug defense with plenty of physical challenges coming in from both teams.
With 11:15 left in the first half, the visitors were awarded a dubious free kick just outside the Eagles penalty area. Caly Farina received the pass and put the ball past Budaj to open the scoring.
As the half wound down, the Panthers midfield took control of the game by hustling the Eagles into mistakes and creating plenty of attacking options.
“Our game is very different to Pomperaug’s,” stated Fanelli. “Our game is a little bit slower and more technical. They were bigger and stronger so as we were moving to the ball, they were there first. We sat back a little bit and started playing more of their game as opposed to our possession game.”
Generis agreed. “The first half was a struggle for us. At half time coach was telling us we need to turn it around or we won’t make it and that’s what we did. We came out a different team in the second half. We worked together and that’s exactly what we’re going to do from start to finish in the semifinals.”
The second half was 10 minutes old when the Eagles equalized. Sophomore Maddy Raposo brought the ball out of defense and set up a great passing move that involved Scacca, Kayla Generis and Rumley. The move gave Wethersfield a three-on-one advantage over the lone Pomperaug defender, who could not stop Raposo from getting the ball back and shooting past McDougall.
The intensity increased as both teams went after a winner but both defenses held strong to leave it 1-1 at the final whistle in a game that was yet to disappoint with no shortage of talking points.
Before overtime could get underway, a medical emergency on the sidelines involving one of the non-playing members of the Pomperaug squad gave both teams ample opportunity to regroup while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
From the kickoff, the hungry Panthers went on the attack. With less than two minutes gone, they took the lead when Collimore picked up a long pass from midfield and chipped the ball over Budaj to regain the lead.
The Eagles started the second period of overtime knowing it was time to leave it all on the field. Halfway through the period, with the ball in the Pomperaug penalty area, Raposo deftly passed to Scacca who put the ball past McDougall to make it 2-2 and set up the penalty shootout.
“Maddy Raposo crossed it to me and I tapped it over the goalie’s head,” Scacca said. “God was with me and I was thankful for that. Just bring the semifinals on. We’re ready!”
Wethersfield’s semi-final opponent will be the winner of the Northwest Catholic at Immaculate game [played Monday, Nov. 10th].
“We’re not ready for it to be over,” Fanelli stated. “It was our goal to get to the quarter finals. I’ve never been to the quarter finals before and now it’s the semis. Hey, I’ve never been to the finals before either. What’s one more week of soccer?
“I don’t think too many people know about us. We’re the underdogs flying under the radar right now, which is how we like things. It’s looking good and I’m extremely excited. We’re ready for the finals. We really are.”