1986: A RETURN TO THE FCIAC FINALS
• The Wreckers look sharp in a pair of 2-0 scrimmage wins over Fairfield Prep and Southington, but the schedule starts with killer games. A 92nd minute header by Canterbury School transfer Tim Doran gives Staples a 1-0 win over New Canaan. It is a game they could never have won before – an FCIAC rule change approved 3 days earlier mandates 2 10-minute overtimes, rather than 5. The extra time proves key.
• Another nail-biter 5 days later goes the other way. Brien McMahon keeper Ricky King feasts on the long, high balls the Wreckers feed him on his bumpy field, while the Senators make their goalmouth scramble tally hold up. Unbeaten Wilton then arrives in Westport. Peter Doolittle, who comes on when Scott Simonton bruises his hip in the first overtime, contributes several key headers, and starts the scoring play 3 minutes into the second OT. He knocks the ball to Ty Jagerson, who sends Tom Buoy barreling through. The keeper and a defender collide, and Buoy calmly finishes into the open net.
• The Wreckers dispose of unbeaten Stamford, 3-1 on goals by Doran (2) and Jem Sollinger (penalty kick). But they do it without tough junior sweeper Andy Udell, who fractured his toe the day before in practice. Coach Jeff Lea makes a series of tactical changes, most importantly moving Simonton to sweeper and inserting Doolittle at outside back.
• Ridgefield wins the first half of their showdown; Staples takes the second. Unfortunately, Tigers Curt Onalfo and Danny Haugh score twice during their "half," the Wreckers only once in theirs (a diving header by Buoy, off Doran’s free kick). Now 3-2, they tumble to fourth place in the FCIAC East.
• They meet Greenwich away in humid, 90-degree heat minus three strikers. All regulars, they are sitting the first of a 3-game suspension for training rules violations. The Wreckers dominate, however, and only poor finishing prevents a win. Greenwich prevails 2-1, despite being outshot 22-9.
• All 26 eligible players see action in a 4-0 breather against Trumbull. Next up is the first-ever match against newly merged Fairfield High. Staples wins 3-0 at the "old" Roger Ludlowe field. They climb into second place, crushing Stamford Catholic 7-2.
• They face Danbury without keeper Scott Zucker (injured knee) and a striker (the fifth booter this fall to be disciplined for a rules violation), but the game is epic. The Hatters’ 4-midfielder formation gives the Westporters fits, and they surrender the first goal. Ten minutes later a defender heads Jem Sollinger’s goal straight down. Mike Leahy touches it to Peter Sheinbaum, who bangs it in. Reserve keeper Cary Pierce and Danbury counterpart Rufus Ward make several key stops. In overtime the game heats up even more.
• Staples’ pressure pays off after 3 intense minutes. Leahy plays the ball to Buoy, 40 yards from net. He redirects it through the arc where Bruce Schulman runs through, beats Ward to the ball and bangs a shot in. Like Sheinbaum’s earlier, it is his first goal of the fall. But the Hatters regroup, and less than 4 minutes later Pat Burke, a transfer from Indiana, equalizes. The remaining 13 minutes are wild, but Pierce, Simonton and Kim Obermeyer stand particularly tall in the draw.
• The Wreckers subdue pesky Westhill 1-0, running their overtime mark to 3-0-1. Doolittle wins a loose ball and plays it forward. Two Vikes misplay it. Military school transfer Bryan Robins picks it up 45 yards from goal and races in on the baseball diamond, finishing confidently. Other heroes are Sheinbaum, Simonton (who suffers a broken nose) and Center, who all channel dangerous striker Nick Bakes outside, and Sollinger and Walker, who finish him off. Pierce makes a diving punch save on Bakes’ direct kick around the wall as the whistle blows, ending the game and earning himself a mob scene.
• Two days later Sollinger neutralizes Alan Zuniga, Pierce makes another stellar fingertip save, and Staples pours in 3 (!) overtime goals to nail Norwalk 3-0. The scores come from sophomores Justin Keeler and Leahy (their first of the year), and Sollinger. The match is terminated with 5:47 remaining, when the Bears receive their second ejection (following 4 yellow cards).
• The next day, after one of the craziest FCIAC finishes ever, the Wreckers complete a mind-boggling fantasy. In 5 days they have rocketed from fourth place in the Eastern Division to first. After a year away, they are back in the playoffs.
• Appropriately for this year, the semifinals against Danbury goes to overtime. Lea juggles his lineup often, inserting Jagerson at several spots, deploying Udell (back from his broken toe) at midfield for 20 crucial minutes, and getting typical rock-solid work from defenders Sheinbaum, Doolittle, Simonton and Andy Reichgut. The Wreckers dominate territorially, but the Hatters have the 2 best chances, both with 5 minutes to play in regulation. Pierce – playing his fourth excellent match in a row – leaps high to snag a 35-yard direct kick. He overslides on a breakaway, but a well-positioned Simonton clears off the line.
• In their fourth straight overtime match, and sixth of the season, Staples is confident. Their fitness helps too. Two minutes into the second sudden death overtime Sollinger celebrates his 16th birthday by ripping a tough-angle shot from the left. Ward tips it away, and a weak clear finds Doran at the 18. He settles, pushes left, aims and slams it into the left corner. The hillside crowd cheers long and hard.
• Two days later, at Wilton High School’s football field, the weather is frigid. The Senators dominate midfield, control the ball better than Staples, and capitalize better on errors. However, the Wreckers dent the scoreboard first. Sollinger beats two men, then slices a pass back to Jagerson. His shot bounces off the post and keeper King before settling in the back of the net.
• But McMahon takes charge, and 3:20 before halftime Jason Brasher’s long, looping shot glances in off Pierce’s fingertips when he loses the ball in the lights. Stunned, the Wreckers let up, and Pierce faces another tough shot a minute later. As he smothers the ball a Senator accidentally kicks him in the head. He stays in the match, but in the second half complains of double vision and lightheadedness. Lea replaces him with Mark Harris – a sophomore who has played not one minute of varsity ball.
• By that time, however, the score is already 2-1. The Wreckers have not even adjusted to attacking with the wind when McMahon strikes 45 seconds after intermission. Jason Diamandis’s shot rolls along the top of the crossbar. When it comes down, Bill Huminski – whose goal decided the regular season match – scores again.
• The Wreckers rebound from the defeat, shutting down Manchester in the LL playdown round. Simonton, playing another fine match, takes a free kick at midfield that Jagerson back-heads to Buoy, who nets the only goal his team gets. The rest of the match consists of Simonton, Reichgut, Sheinbaum, Doolittle and Center countering the upstaters’ big, skillfull sophomores effectively, if inelegantly. They must – behind them is Harris, in just his second varsity match ever. But he comes up big several times, and 11th-rated Staples is ready to head north to Simsbury for the round of 16.
• The sixth-ranked Trojans have surrendered 3 goals all year. They manage just 11 shots on goal all game – but allow the Wreckers only 3. Simsbury gets the game’s only score with 18 minutes remaining, off a direct kick that bounces around before being misheaded on a clear. After a perfect bounce, it lands at the feed of unmarked Rob Stone. Amazed by his perfect setup, he blasts the ball in off the underside of the crossbar. The Wreckers do not die, but they cannot solve the Trojans’ fine defense, and their fine, come-from-behind season ends.
• Simonton and Sollinger are voted onto the All-FCIAC team, while Zucker is named to the All-East squad.
• Other players not previously mentioned include Fran Coen, Dave Dowie, Moises Iraheta, John Mann, Derek Riker, Drew Riker and Billy Weissman.
• The junior varsity, coached by former Rippowam star Joe Pierce, is 9-2-2; Dan Woog’s freshmen are 9-1-3. Former player Rick Jakobson serves as Lea’s assistant.
• Cary Pierce goes on to fame as a member of the Dallas-based duo Jackopierce.
CAPTAIN: Scott Zucker
COACH: Jeff Lea
1987: ‘I’M IN HEAVEN…I SCORED THE WINNING GOAL!’
• Coach Jeff Lea welcomes a coach’s dream: a group of experienced, hungry seniors. Since elementary school they have played together as the Westport Soccer Association-sponsored Warriors, winning the U-16 state championship and showing well at Sweden’s Gothia Cup. On opening day of pre-season, Danish exchange student Stig Johansen appears, and immediately impresses. The team demolishes Bridgeport Central (10-0) and Fairfield Prep (6-0) in scrimmages, then goes 3-0-1 in a jamboree with Avon, E.O. Smith-Storrs, Kingswood-Oxford and host Loomis Chaffee.
• Rain creates havoc at Norwalk field for opening day. But the Wreckers overcome puddles and high, soggy grass to prevail 5-0. Jem Sollinger scores twice (once on a penalty kick); Johansen (after being viciously fouled), Derek Riker and Ty Jagerson add solo strikes. After a 40-minute delay caused by New Canaan bus problems, it takes just 3:05 for Staples to tally. Sollinger burns his defender, then floats a pass that Justin Keeler nods in. That is all the scoring in a game notable for defender Bobby Dearborn’s first start.
• The Westporters fail to adapt to Brien McMahon’s pack-the-goal defense that follows the Senators’ goal 2:30 into the second half. Staples also fails to follow up 2 close shots; the 1-0 loss puts them in an early hole in the FCIAC Eastern Division. Wilton solidifies their hold on first place in the next game, which begins after a monsoon. In the 10th minute a low, hard shot skips in for an early Warrior lead. Johansen takes Sollinger’s feed and blasts a left-footer into the far corner, but with 11 minutes to play the hosts’ Brian Mayglothling converts a penalty kick. Starters Jagerson, Andy Udell, Peter Sheinbaum and Bryan Robins are all ailing, but the team vows to do whatever it takes to bounce back.
• They stop Stamford 3-0, in front of a crowd that includes former player Steve Baumaan – the new coach at the University of Pennsylvania – and follow up with a 2-0 shutout at Ridgefield. Mike Leahy and Robins hand the Tigers their first loss to Staples since 1982. The shutout streak continues, 1-0 over Greenwich, before a large home crowd. Late in the match Sollinger’s 35-yard free kick eludes keeper Ted Kreppein; a swarm of Stapleites converge, and Sheinbaum heads it down and in. Sollinger is the man of the hour the next time out too. His goal 7 minutes in is the margin of victory over pesky Trumbull.
• The Saturday morning Danbury match promises plenty, as the Hatters are locked in a 3-way battle in the FCIAC West. Staples starts slowly, and the upstaters use good 1-touch passing and smart runs to score twice in the first 10 minutes. Nelson Lopes’ seemingly wide shot deflects in off 2 different players; then Pat Burke picks up an errant pass at the center circle and feeds Dave Gaginello, who easily beats the still-moving-forward defense. Down 2 goals, the Wreckers rally after intermission. A pretty Sollinger-Jagerson-Sheinbaum combination halves the deficit. But end-to-end action produces no further goals, and the Hatters hang on to win.
• The FCIAC tournament begins as the previous year’s semifinal did: Staples at Danbury. This time, 10 days after their regular season defeat, the Wreckers pull off a convincing victory. Despite leaving sweeper Andy Udell in Westport (stomach virus), they seize control from the opening whistle and never let go. Sollinger replaces his fellow tri-captain in back, and plays just as magnificently. Incessant pressure by Keeler, Robins and Jagerson, backed up by midfielders Johansen, Leahy and Jon Walker, force Danbury’s backs to work far harder than before. That causes them to snipe at each other, which inspires Staples even more. In the 33rd minute, as Sollinger sets up for a free kick, coach Jeff Lea yells, "Loop your runs!" Jagerson does, and heads Sollinger’s perfectly placed service high. Then he settles the ball, and calmly taps it in.
• Goal 2, in the 53rd minute, begins when Robins forces, then takes, a corner kick. Peter Doolittle, replacing Udell as the "tall man" on corners, contorts himself to reach the ball, yet manages to head with enough power to beat the keeper. The goal galvanizes Danbury, and for 25 minutes they knock on Staples’ door. But the back 4 of Sollinger, Doolittle, Sheinbaum and Dearborn rise to the occasion. Behind them keeper Mark Harris plays the game of his career, topped by a glue-like grab of a bullet that is already behind him. The Hatters score with 5:34 to go, but the Wreckers shut them down the rest of the way.
• In the FCIAC finals for the first time in 6 years, the Wreckers face Greenwich, upset winners by 3-2 in overtime against Wilton (after losing 2-0) in the semifinals. Staples overpowers the playoff-inexperienced Cardinals through 80 minutes of regulation play. Lea throws several lineup combinations onto the field, and as the match wears on the red defenders are reduced to desperation booting. In the gusting wind, the ball blows right back at them. Sollinger, who wins the Most Valuable Player trophy, switches well with Johansen; Doolittle’s diving headers rouses the crowd, while Dearborn – who breaks his toe near the end of the first half – and his replacement, sophomore Matt Evans – also shine defensively.
• But despite their obvious superiority, Staples cannot connect. When someone on the bench comments on the game’s excitement, sophomore striker George Robbins replies, "I’d rather be ahead than excited." Winning the coin toss to start overtime, the Wreckers choose to stick with the wind and press the attack. Four minutes later the decision pays dividends. Udell’s long throw-in flies over Sollinger. The crafty midfielder boxes out his defender, quickly turns, chases it down and carries deep to the corner. Two backs follow him. He waits a split second, then sends a cross back on the diagonal. Jagerson stabs, but misses. The ball eludes 1 defender, then continues on to Walker as he cruises into perfect position. He sees Kreppein out of position, leans over the ball and fires. A few minutes later Walker extricates himself from a pile of delirious players and fans to give an interview to Channel 12 news. "I’m in heaven…I scored the winning goal!" he says. The remark becomes a Staples soccer cult classic.
• The FCIAC title is the highlight of the season. Three weather postponements force an 8-day delay before the start of LL play. The first game is an utterly forgettable 2-0 victory over Norwalk, achieved with 2 Sollinger goals in the first 10 minutes.
• Three days later the 10th-rated Wreckers travel to Cheshire, where Staples’ season-long inability to finish finally kills them. They out-shoot, out-corner kick, out-pressure and out-possess their hosts, but the 7th-ranked Rams, in their LL debut, get the only goal, a 20-yard Simon Pannone shot midway through the second half. The Wreckers fail to test 5-7 keeper Corey Feldstein from close in. His toughest chances come late: He leaps high to deny Sheinbaum’s header, then in the final minute punches Udell’s header off a corner kick to the sideline. Staples racks up the team’s most wins in 5 years, and 17th FCIAC crown, but the feeling of frustration is hard to shake.
• Sollinger and Sheinbaum are named to the All-FCIAC squad; Doolittle, Udell and Leahy make All-East.
• This is Lea’s 10th year as head coach, but his first as a father. Daughter Amanda Katherine is born August 29, 2 days before practice begins.
• Walker, the king of comedians on a team blessed with personalities, makes people laugh even on the field. Against Westhill, the referee warns both teams to keep their hands down. Walker immediately runs after a ball with his hands clenched behind his back.
• Other players not previously mentioned include Justin Carmichael, Pat Dobbs, Dennis Doran, Tim Fisher, Tony Ialeggio, Matt Jackson, Josh Resnik, Drew Riker, Steve Swann and Todd Williams,
• Following a request by the NAACP, Stamford changes its name from the Black Knights to the Knights.
• The junior varsity, coached by former player and Middlebury captain Mike Brown, goes 9-2-2. During a game at Coleytown Middle School, a jayvee ball bounces over the fence onto North Avenue, where the driver of a passing car grabs it and drives off. Coach Dan Woog’s freshmen are 11-2.
TRI-CAPTAINS: Peter Doolittle, Jem Sollinger, Andrew Udell
COACH: Jeff Lea
1988: THE CHESHIRE CURSE CONTINUES
• Coach Jeff Lea faces the difficult task of replacing 8 starters and his first 3 substitutes. The incoming Wreckers organize a summer-long, 6:30 a.m. weight training regimen at the YMCA. They look solid in pre-season, beating Fairfield Prep 5-0 and Southington 5-2, before going 1-1-2 during 35-minute matches with Avon, Loomis Chaffee, defending state champion E.O. Smith-Storrs and Wethersfield, at Loomis.
• They open the season with a one-sided 2-0 victory over Westhill. Sophomore Chris Mitchell nets the first score of the season, casually taking classmate Brad Bierman’s corner kick out of the air and redirecting it in with the side of his foot. George Robbins controls Mike Leahy’s pass off his chest, to tally the insurance goal. They sloppily tie New Canaan 0-0 but Ridgefield is upset 3-2 by Wilton, so the Wreckers ease into first place in the FCIAC East.
• Brien McMahon records its fourth straight win over Staples, 2-0, on a pair of goals in the final 10 minutes. The Senators are the first team all year to score on keeper Mark Harris, and defenders Justin Harrison, Matt Evans, Scott Fisher, Brad Smith and Jud Cook. The second goal – a deflection knocked in by Arne Serravezza – is the first goal ever scored against the Wrecker varsity by a girl.
• Facing injuries, illnesses, youth, FCIAC inexperience, a scoring drought, a formidable foe and a practice described as "the worst in the history of soccer," the Westporters come of age. They treat one of the largest home crowds in years to a hard-earned 1-0 overtime victory against a bigger, older, more talented Wilton side. Staples slowly recovers from early Warrior domination. Bierman dominates Brian Mayglothling, the midfielder who will earn post-season All-America honors. The key play of the first half is a tip save by Harris on a Mayglothling blast ticketed for the right corner.
• The keeper initiates the winning goal in the second OT, saving a difficult high shot and booming a long punt that bounces once before finding Mitchell 10 yards past midfield. The tall sophomore controls with his chest, turns, dribbles twice, and splits 2 defenders. As keeper Tim Hazo comes to the top of the 18 Mitchell stumbles, but his poke shot bounces wickedly up and beyond the keeper’s reach. Wilton roars back – 2 of their 12 shots come after the goal – and Harris works hard. When they win, the Wreckers pour onto the field as if they won the FCIAC finals. They are simply tied for the Eastern Division lead, 1 step closer to the league playoffs.
• Co-leader Ridgefield captures an overtime showdown, 2-1. It is a solid outing for the Staples, and the Tigers tally on freak goals. Adam Porter’s attempted cross spins wickedly on the goal line for several seconds before squibbing in; in overtime Chris Cassidy back-heels a direct kick to Kurt Gaugler, who hits another spinning shot that carries in. Still Staples fights hard, as they had earlier when Todd Barrato fed Justin Keeler for the equalizer. Midfielders Bierman, Cook, Terence Fitzpatrick, Lance Candon and Georg Diettrich, along with the defenders, show Ridgefield the tightest marking they’ve seen all year.
• Staples earns a scrappy 1-0 victory over Greenwich, as Keeler drills Fitzpatrick’s cross 5 minutes in. A ho-hum 4-1 win over Trumbull is noticeable only because it qualifies the Wreckers for their 30th consecutive state tournament. But then things unravel.
• Overconfidence, cockiness by veteran players and a lack of concentration by young ones contribute to a 3-1 loss to Fairfield. It is the first time since Sept. 23, 1958 that any Fairfield side has beaten Staples – and that was the first game in Wrecker history. It starts a downward spiral, abetted by injuries to Keeler and Justin Carmichael.
• The Wreckers beat a suddenly respectable (6-3-1) Stamford Catholic squad 5-3 – the reserves surrender 2 late goals – but Danbury wins 2-0 to run their mark to 11-1. Staples drops to third place in the East. Darien (3-3-6) comes to Westport needing a victory in their season finale to qualify for the state tournament; the Wreckers must win to retain their slim FCIAC hopes, and pump up their tourney seeding. In a steady rain the aroused Blue Wave tally twice in the final 18 minutes, handing Staples their second shutout in a row.
• Lea points out that when assistant cook Jayson Cook was a Staples senior in 1982, the team failed to qualify for the FCIAC championship for the first time ever. Cook and his teammates promptly won the state title. But 1988 is not 1982, and for the second straight year the Wrecker season ends on Cheshire’s small, muddy, bumpy field. However, the 23rd-ranked, Westporters go out like champs, rising to the occasion against the 10th-rated Rams.
• The hosts pick up the first of 4 yellow cards early. Despite tough traction in the mud, the Wreckers run forward at an encouraging pace. Leahy plays his best game as a Stapleite, combining attacking runs with crisp, wide passes. Midfielders Candon, Bierman, Fitzpatrick and Diettrich team up with strikers Keeler, Robbins, Mitchell and Barrato to mount their most dangerous threats in a long time. The take-no-prisoners defense is led by Carmichael and Fisher on the flanks, and the piston-like Evans and Harrison in the middle. In the second half Carmichael aggravates his anterior compartment syndrome, and Jon Cook steps in with no loss of control.
• In the 28th minute Cheshire’s aggressive style of play costs them a goal. The defensive wall encroaches on Bierman’s free kick; on the retake, keeper Corey Feldstein is screened. The sophomore center midfielder curls his kick around the right side of the wall with radar accuracy and atomic power. The pumped-up Wreckers attack even more intensely, but 3 minutes before halftime the Rams connect on a counterattack.
• Staples regroups after halftime, but Cheshire forces Harris into 2 difficult saves. The first 10-minute sudden death overtime features quick passing, good runs and alternating domination by both sides. Bierman nearly wins it with a repeat of his earlier goal but Feldstein saves superbly, and seconds later the Rams are knocking on the Wreckers’ door 80 yards away. A defender fans attempting to clear; a Cheshire striker returns the favor by missing an open net, and Staples sets up for a goal kick. Suddenly, 6:46 into the first OT, that harmless play becomes a nightmare. The ball is miskicked to the foot of Nick Lerner. He controls it 25 yards out, touches it twice, then rockets a shot just inside the left post. Thhe season is done.
• Harris, the keeper, is a national-caliber decathlete and pole vaulter. Years later, he becomes the Staples pole vault coach, and assistant boys volleyball coach.
• Alex Deegan, the sophomore keeper, is a transfer from Greens Farms Academy – and son of 1963 star Bill Deegan. Harrison’s father, Dave, is a longtime Staples social studies teacher. Diettrich, a German exchange student, lives with the McCaffrey family – the same one that hosted Stig Johansen of Denmark the previous year.
• Keeler is voted to the All-FCIAC squad, while Carmichael and Evans make All-East. Keeler and Leahy are selected to play in the second annual All-Star game in North Haven the day after Thanksgiving.
• Guest speaker for the annual banquet at the Inn at Longshore is head coach Dave Saward of Middlebury College. His captain is former Staples keeper Andrew Cornish.
• For the first time since the early 1970s, teams sit on the east side of the Staples field. They abandon the Ed Ljostad-built benches at the base of the hill when the FCIAC finally enforces its edict separating spectators from players. The move eliminates what one player called "the dead area" on the far side of the field.
• Had the Wreckers won one more game during the regular season, they would have qualified for the FCIAC playoffs – with an 8-4-1 record.
• Mike Bossy, recently retired New York Islanders star, attends the Darien match as the guest of Bill and Sue Mitchell, Chris and Scott’s parents.
• The junior varsity coach is Dale Nicholls; his teams finish 7-3-3. Coach Dan Woog’s freshmen are 9-1-1.
• Staples’ 4 losses by 2-goal margins represent the first time since Nov. 14, 1979 – a span of more than 9 years and 135 games – that the Wreckers lose a game by more than 1 goal. That 1979 loss came by a 3-1 count to Glastonbury, in the semifinals of the state tournament.
• Other team members not previously mentioned include Peter Eliot, Grady Farmer, Sean Hawes, John Waller and Niklas Zetterberg.
CAPTAIN: Mike Leahy
COACH: Jeff Lea
1989: THE KICKBOARD BECKONS
• To honor the end of the fourth decade of Staples soccer, a dozen boys spend 2 summer weeks refurbishing and painting the kickboard donated several years earlier by the Westport Soccer Association. (An earlier version had been demolished to make way for the softball diamond.) They list all 10 state championships and 17 FCIAC titles – then add "19–," so the next championship team will have just 2 numbers to fill in. When pre-season begins they travel to Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, where they go 2-0-2 against Avon (reigning Class M state champ, ranked number 2 in the nation); E.O. Smith-Storrs, Wethersfield and their hosts.
• The Wreckers open with a 3-0 victory against Stamford Catholic. The scoring begins when Brad Bierman slams a 40-yard free kick off the crossbar, and Matt Evans 1-times it in from 4 yards out before war-whooping back to midfield. The second goal is a gorgeous affair: Alex Deegan to Bierman to Terence Fitzpatrick to George Robbins to Chris Mitchell. The final is a 40-yard beeline breakaway by Chris Ashby, a striker who has just transferred to Staples after 10 years in Spain.
• Two rain delays plus a postponement by Darien due to the threat of Hurricane Hugo (the day turns out fine) cause a 10-day layoff before game 2 in Danbury. The Wreckers channel their aggression and adrenaline into a strong 2-0 victory. Mitchell roars through to intercept a weak back pass before netting the first goal; then Jason Reid, a solid defensive replacement for Lance Candon (bruised ribs) wins a ball, carries tenaciously upfield and feeds Ashby. Jon Cook and Grady Farmer render Nelson Lopes ineffective; Fitzpatrick marks Nate Taylor equally effectively.
• Several more rainouts and "wet field" delays follow; the Norwalk match is postponed on a rare gorgeous day because a referee arrives 90 minutes late (15 minutes after both teams give up and go home). The Wreckers hold team meetings, watch videotapes and kick around on ref-less fields. When they are finally ready to face New Canaan, an official again fails to show. This time the layoff is 9 days. Coach Jeff Lea worries about the mental and physical effects of 7 delays.
• The New Canaan rematch is so hastily arranged that players must leave school at lunch to fetch their uniforms. They regroup in time for a 1-0 victory. Less than a minute before halftime Ashby – his back to the goal – flicks the ball backward, just like in practice. Mitchell runs on and finishes to the back corner.
• The Wreckers beat Brien McMahon 2-0 on George Robbins’ bending rocket that nicks the side post, and Mitchell’s shot. But they lose ace sweeper Bierman, who breaks his wrist sliding for a loose ball. With high school rules prohibiting players from wearing casts, Justin Harrison reassumes the role he handled so effectively as a sophomore.
• The post-Bierman era begins with a 2-1 victory in Wilton. In the second half Robbins deals 4 Warriors before dishing off to Mitchell. But the lead does not hold. Mark Howansky heads home a crossbar carom, the first goal scored on Staples in 464:22. With 30 seconds to go in the first overtime Robbins again feeds Mitchell, who beats the keeper to the pass, pulls the ball back and tucks it into the corner. It is his second OT game winner in as many years against Wilton.
• The rescheduled Norwalk match is played in rain and raw wind on a sodden Nathan Hale School field. The Bears score on a penalty kick, but the Westporters pull out a 2-1 win on tallies by Ashby and Reid. The game-winner comes with 3 minutes to go, when Reid stubs in a shot as the ball bounces crazily on the 12-yard stripe.
• After (of course) several days’ postponement by rain, a large crowd masses on the Staples hill for the annual Ridgefield clash. A titanic, defense-dominated 100 minutes ends in 1-1, the season’s first blemish for Staples. The Tigers dominate in the first half but manage only 1 score, Chris Hanrahan’s 10-yard shot. Two minutes later keeper Alex Deegan tips a 6-yard indirect kick over the crossbar, and the Wreckers begin a slow crawl back into contention. In the 60th minute they draw level when Mitchell picks up Ashby’s pass, then bananas a 40-yard cross that strikes the bar and bounces in off the back of keeper Justin Teranova’s neck. The Tigers roar back, and 3 minutes later Deegan is forced into a series of superb sliding saves. The overtimes are a wild but scoreless affair. Deegan’s spectacular, backward-leaning fingertip save is the highlight.
• The draw throws the FCIAC race into confusion. If Staples and Ridgefield, both 9-0-1, remain undefeated in their final 3 games they will be co-divisional champs, and a coin flip will determine who hosts the league semifinal and who travels to Danbury. True to the crazy happenings all fall, that is exactly what happens. Staples athletic director Bob Byiteck asks coach Jeff Lea what to call; Lea asks the players, who answer "tails." Lea knows the result of the flip prior to the final game, but does not tell his team. When they defeat Greenwich 2-0, he tells them: They’ll board a bus for Danbury. They don’t care. After so many delays, injuries, suspensions and other problems, one more long bus ride hardly matters.
• Playing in a monsoon on the mud bowl knows as the Hatters’ home field, the Wreckers play an epic game. Considering the number of postponements they have had – for drizzles, wet fields and the threat of a hurricane – it is unbelievable that the semis are played. The fact that there is so mcuh good, intelligent soccer (along with the inevitable sliding and tripping) is miraculous.
• The Hatters adapt quicker than the Wreckers. They immediately play old-fashioned kick-and-run, the only style possible. Only Deegan’s uncanny judgment, flypaper hands and fearless positioning keep Staples in contention for the first 10 minutes. But they soon pick up on what works for Danbury, and the game evolves into a series of dominations. In the 25th minute the visitors break the deadlock. Mitchell drives to the corner flag, across the only part of the field not swamped, and left-foots a cross beyond the penalty arc that Ashby redirects with his head into the far corner. He lands face down in a bog, sees the ball nestled in the back netting, and joins his teammates in a berserk pile.
• Danbury counters less than 5 minutes later when Taylor’s corner kick bends past everyone, and is chested in by Dave Cagianello. The second half is a run-and-gun, waterlogged blastathon, but the winning goal is an improbable thing of beauty. Mitchell feeds Grady Farmer on the right side; he beats 1 defender and lofts a dangerous cross into the area. Reid’s header is not on goal, but the keeper does not know it and attempts a save. The ball spins off his fingertips onto the waiting foot of Mitchell, who has sprinted forward for just this eventuality. He pokes it in from 2.
• That sets up a Staples-Ridgefield meeting – amazingly, their first ever for the FCIAC title. It is, fittingly, another 1-1 tie – and referee Phil Liebrock calls it among the best games he has seen in 2 decades of officiating. A college coach calls it far better than most collegiate games, and the crowd of nearly 2000 at Wilton High agrees.
• As they had 10 days earlier, the Tigers use their speed and ball control skill to establish early domination. But the Wreckers are not stunned, and the match becomes a battle for midfield. With Deegan (who shares Most Valuable Player honors with Tiger sweeper Kevin Webster) turning in his usual heroics at one end, his teammates manage to score first at the other. The goal comes in the 30th minute, after Farmer’s inswinger to Mitchell is nodded to Ashby. The junior striker lays a perfect pass across to Reid, who races forward and finishes his third goal of the year with conviction.
• The Tigers grow stronger, and draw level 6:40 from time. A defender misheads backwards, and Chris Young connects on the clear shot. In the final minutes Deegan (playing with a painful hip pointer) scoops the ball at the top of the 18, dishes off to avoid a hand ball, then watches as Kurt Gaugler whistles a shot off the crosspiece. (An earlier similar blast by Gaugler created a truly funny moment. The ball caromed onto the goal line; Webster, thinking it was in, began celebrating with back flips. His teammates, meanwhile, were racing back on defense, preventing a counterattack.) Deegan continues his heroics to the end, flying for a fingertip save on Aaron Lapine’s shot 1 minute from the end. The Wreckers feel incomplete – "This is the saddest bunch of champions I’ve ever seen," a spectator comments – but they are eager to begin the state LL tournament.
• Seeded sixth – their highest ranking since the championship year of 1982 – earns a home match against #22 Simsbury. Hobbled by injuries (Deegan, Bierman and Fitzpatrick are ailing; Farmer leaves in the 15th minute to get 6 stitches in his head), with Mitchell playing sans contact lenses), and perhaps looking ahead, it takes Staples 50 minutes to show cohesion or forcefulness. But they score 5 minute later, when Fitzpatrick’s pass snakes between 2 defenders, and Mitchell and Ashby converge simultaneously. Ashby gets credit for the score.
• The quarterfinal against Holy Cross-Waterbury at New Canaan’s Connor Field is, by contrast, a work of art. With Farmer and Robbins providing width at midfield, and central midfielders Evans and Fitzpatrick switching at will, the Wreckers play exciting, selfless, touchline-to-touchline soccer. Each goal seems prettier than the one before. First Cook slams an indirect kick over the defensive wall to Ashby, who hammers a left-footed volley in on the near post. Then Deegan outlets to Harrison, who cruises 50 yards on the left before dishing to Fitzpatrick. He drives middle and switches fields to Farmer, who slices by 2 defenders, races to the right corner flag, swivels 45 degrees and delivers perfectly to Mitchell. The lanky striker ends Holy Cross’ misery by powering a curving shot into the lower left corner.
• Goal 3 shows perfect timing. Ashby gives Candon a back pass; he sends a diagonal ball upfield, where Evans heads goalward. Mitchell picks it up next, beats 2 Crusaders and feeds Ashby, who avoids an offside call although several defenders stop playing. Ashby short-hops the ball into the far corner.
• The Crusaders, sensing an end to their unblemished season, back off, and Staples seizes the advantage. Mark Franks lays off to Ashby; he 1-touches to Robbins, who immediately redirects to stopper Cook, roaming far afield. Cooks spins a 25-yard shot into the net, just over the keeper’s head, for the first goal of his varsity career. The Cross sweeper shouts, "Wow! This is like a nonstop power play!"
• The final goal comes from Evans. He caps his best game as a Stapleite by collecting the ball off a defensive mishead, then steaming a shot off the underside of the crossbar from 30 yards.
• That is the high-water mark for Staples. An aroused Glastonbury side waylays them 3-0 in the semifinals, at North Haven’s Sachem Field. The Wreckers, celebrating their 13th place ranking in the national poll and looking ahead to the finals, turn in their poorest performance all fall. They are outplayed in every facet of the game, and know it. Despite excellent team play all year, and the best regular season record since 1981, their season ends on a down note.
• Three days later, however, Staples has a state championship soccer squad. In Frank Henrick’s first year as varsity girls coach, exactly 20 years after leading the boys to a state crown, the Wreckers end Wilton’s long reign with a 1-0 victory – at Connor Field. The boys stand on the sideline cheering.
• Co-captain Evans scores both the first and last goals of the season. Bierman is the first junior captain in history.
• Six Wreckers make the All-FCIAC team: Robbins, Cook, Bierman, Deegan, Mitchell and Ashby.
• Bierman, who returns from a broken wrist to play in the regular season finale against Greenwich, soon injures tendons in his heel.
• When Staples and Ridgefield both appear in the Gatorade/USA Today poll, it probably marks the first time in history 2 teams from the same division of the same league are in the national Top 20.
• The tradition of having pre-game pasta dinners begins this season.
• Former player Jayson Cook serves as Lea’s assistant. Coach Dale Nicholls’ junior varsity is 11-1-1, while Dan Woog’s freshmen are undfeated and untied, at 11-0-0. The combined record for Staples’ 3 boys teams is 37-2-3.
• Other players not previously mentioned include Rob Brass, Mike Chaney, Eric Drogan, Jon Holland, Nick Johnson, Alan Mack, Mike Murray, Luke Scott, Dan Stapkowski, Marc Vandijck and Matt Yonan. Scott goes on to be a partner in www.dogsname.com, the developer for this Staples soccer web site.
CO-CAPTAINS: Brad Bierman, Matt Evans
COACH: Jeff Lea
1990: THE FOURTH DECADE BEGINS
• In their first-ever foray to Rhode Island, Staples captures 4 pre-season games and ties 1 against 5 of top New England teams: Ridgefield, Glastonbury, North Kingstown and Barrington, R.I., and Ludlow, Mass. They outscore the opposition 7-0, and outclass the field. The next weekend, with teams packing the goalmouth, they go 1-0-3 at Loomis Chaffee, against Avon, E.O. Smith-Storrs, Wethersfield and Loomis.
• They open confidently against Trumbull. Terence Fitzpatrick tallies unassisted at 1:48; they get 3 more before halftime, then tack on another 5 in the second half (including 4 goals in the 5 minutes following intermission). The 9-0 pasting ties the school record for most one-sided season opener, set in 1962 against Stamford (when keeper Alex Deegan’s father Bill was playing), and tied in 1979 versus Westhill.
• A new opponent, Western Connecticut Conference kingpin Newtown, comes to town hoping to prove they belong on the same field as top FCIAC teams. They do, earning a 2-2 tie. Unawed by the Wreckers’ reputation, they pounce on a miscue (and Deegan’s injured ankle) 37 seconds into the match. But the home side draws even 13 minutes later, on a nice Chris Mitchell-Brad Bierman-Chris Ashby sequence. Fitzpatrick is ejected after earning his second yellow card of the day (a new CIAC rule), and the Westporters play a man down for 68 minutes. Six minutes after halftime Jon Ball – son of Staples English teacher Joe – nets his second goal of the game, but again the Wreckers roar back. Ashby heads in his own rebound, following Grady Farmer’s shot.
• Fairfield has scored 6 times on them in the past 2 years, but Staples buckles down with a shutout. They need it, for the Mustangs’ intensity, speed, aggression and quadruple platoon system nearly earn them another upset. But a chaotic goal in the 32nd minute, scored in a scramble and credited to Bierman off an assist from Jeff Forbes, stands up.
• A nearly traditional 8-1 rout of Stamford Catholic precedes a much-anticipated bout with Danbury. The teams are now in the same division, following FCIAC realignment based on size (the Wreckers are the smallest school in the large-sized West). Danbury wins 1-0, in a match that provides as little entertainment as the gray afternoon. In the next outing, a 2-0 victory over previously unbeaten Darien, coach Jeff Lea moves Fitzpatrick to sweeper, shifts Justin Harrison next to Bierman as dual central midfielders, and slots Farmer at central striker flanked by Ashby and Mitchell. The wide-open, potent and unpredictable attack is augmented by midfielders Forbes and Brian Stern, and defenders Nick Johnson and Steve Uydess.
• A series of wins follows, including a 4-0 shutout of curiously weak Brien McMahon. The Senators have scored only once all year, on a questionable penalty kick call against equally sorrowful Stamford Catholic. An unexpected day off from school due to a power outage is not reflected on the field against Stamford, where 6 second half goals (by Ashby, Harrison, new starter George Sakellis, Luke Scott, Forbes and Fitzpatrick) demolish Stamford 6-0.
• The rampage continues with a 3-2 win at Ridgefield – the first victory over the Tigers since 1987 – and, 24 hours later, a come-from-behind 5-1 win over Greenwich.
• The semifinal is a rematch with Danbury, the only team to defeat Staples this year. (The intradivisional foes face each other because, for the first time, playoff spots are determined based on record, not order of finish in the division.) The contest is no contest: Staples’ 3-0 win marks their most 1-sided victory since the league went to a 4-team format. It is achieved in what Lea calls "Wrecker weather" – cold and windy -on Danbury’s home turf.
• In the 16th minute Harrison plays a ball off a defender. Mitchell, stationed just outside the halfway line, lofts a turnaround floater. Farmer and Forbes run on, pressuring keeper Tom Rose. The wind holds the ball up; it lands in front of Rose, bounces wickedly and carries into the net.
• Five minutes before halftime the Westporters score another weird goal. A corner kick bounces out to Mike Chaney – recovered from his pre-season broken ankle – and he dumps it back in the middle. Once again Rose is caught off his line; once more the ball flies over his head. Bierman (who marks dangerous midfielder Nelson Lopes out of the game) nails a 45-yard free kick midway through the second half. Mitchell races forward and heads it down, through Rose’s hands. The defense of Deegan, Fitzpatrick, Uydess and Johnson (who receives a dubious red card for pushing 3 minutes from time) secures the win.
• The Wreckers enter the finals against Ridgefield, at Wilton’s Memorial Stadium, minus Johnson. Ashby and Sakellis sit too, due to training infractions at Homecoming. But Staples treats thousands of spectators to a 2-0 romp, avenging the previous year’s title draw and earning their 19th league crown in 30 years. Lea and assistant coach Tim Hunter devise a makeshift lineup. Forbes starts up front; Mitchell plays as a withdrawn forward; Stern and Derek Sexton pinch in more than Wrecker midfielders usually do; Bierman is pulled back to stopper, and Chaney starts as a marking back.
• The changes work perfectly. The game proceeds frenetically, but the pumped-up Westporters keep cool. They strike in the 17th minute with their trademark: a long ball that loops over the keeper’s head when he spies the "triple towers" of Forbes, Farmer and Mitchell bearing down on him. This time the ball comes off Bierman’s foot, courtesy of a seemingly harmless 55-yard free kick.
• Deegan saves twice in the air, then spectacularly punches away Brad Fisher’s point-blank rocket from just outside the penalty area, to keep Staples on top. It proves to be Ridgefield’s last gasp. The coup de grace comes with 18 minutes left, as pretty a goal as seen in high school soccer. Mitchell flicks upfield to Farmer, who flies down the sideline and beats a gang of defenders. From the corner he cuts a perfect pass back to Mitchell, who completes his 50-yard run by left-footing a one-touch shot across the grain. Farmer and Mitchell share Most Valuable Player honors. A good case can also be made for Bierman, who owns Fisher and also initiates many dangerous attacks.
• Ranked fifth, the Wreckers nonetheless face a playdown game, as 28 teams qualify for the LL tourney. Last-rated Xavier-Middletown gives them fits for 40 minutes, but after halftime Staples settles down. Two minutes past intermission Mitchell redirects Harrison’s fine corner kick into the cage; 30 minutes later Farmer cuts an excellent pass across the goalmouth the Mitchell, who boots it in off the hands of the diving keeper. With 4 minutes to play Sexton nails his first varsity goal, off aggressive work deep in the penalty area.
• Inspired passing and intelligent team play key the 3-1 victory over 12th-rated Wilbur Cross-New Haven. The easterners’ Alvara Zuniga and Ricky Bell are 2 of the toughest, quickest and most talented opponents the Wreckers see all year; tall, athletic keeper Onyeka Anyakora keeps the Governors in the game early. But the Wreckers maintain composure, knock the ball around brightly and offer plenty of support. They are rewarded before halftime, when Bierman chips a 30-yard free kick into the goalmouth. Farmer’s flick-volley stuns Anyakora.
• Despite being in charge, Staples lets Cross back in the game. Kent Perkins toasts several defenders and finishes into an open net 3 minutes before intermission. But the Wreckers stay calm, and their poise leads to the go-ahead tally 24 minutes from time. Mitchell, who wows the large crowd with his dominating play all afternoons, "salads" 1 defender, threads 2 more, then dishes to Farmer. He takes just 1 touch before crashing a shot off the crossbar. Ashby and Mitchell converge but Mitchell backs off, allowing Ashby to bang in a 10-yard, left-footed shot.
• Sixty-eight seconds later, the game is all but over. Mitchell receives the ball 35 yards out, beats a defender, then – from the penalty spot, and still at full sprint – lifts the ball with his foot and flicks it over the onrushing keeper.
• That earns the Wreckers a quarterfinal rematch with 15-0-2, #4 Glastonbury. The Westporters talk of revenge against the team that handled them 3-0 the previous year. The site is the same: North Haven’s Sachem Field. Both teams are intact – and Glastonbury is filled with players who have never lost to Westport, dating back a decade in youth soccer competition.
• The upstaters retain their unblemished mark. It is not easy – Staples outplays them for long stretches, facing a howling wind for the first half – but Glastonbury does it. They are helped immensely when, just after halftime, the wind abates. In the 52nd minute Jamie Quinlan runs onto Jason Ewing’s short pass, and finishes hard. The Wreckers regroup, and play patient ball. But the Tomahawks retreat defensively. Mitchell – feeling the effects of a lingering illness – takes himself outside, away from the flow of play, and Staples’ possession results in few threats.
• There is patience, but little passion on the field. The bench is silent. As the large scoreboard clock ticks down, it seems as if Glastonbury will record its second straight LL shutout of Staples. Suddenly, 30 seconds from extinction, the Tomahawks play a free kick quicker than they have to, and Bierman wins it at midfield. He turns once toward the center, and drives a long, left-footed pass crosswise into the box. Mitchell – who seconds earlier was chatting with his marker – races for the ball. He meets it exquisitely, 1-timing home the Wreckers’ most memorable goal of the year. There are 21 seconds left to play.
• Staples starts overtime exhilarated. They’d watched Glastonbury slump to the ground after Mitchell’s score. The first 10-minute sudden death starts with the Wreckers again facing the wind, but they are in control. Their attacks are direct, their touches sure. They cannot score, but again they are extremely patient.
• Suddenly, just 1:15 into the second overtime, it is all over. The play begins 100 yards away, with the ball skittering at the edge of the Tomahawks’ box. Suddenly there is a 2-on-0 breakaway, with sophomore Rob Rossi racing down the right. Fifteen yards from goal he cuts inside. A supporting teammate prevents the defense from giving him full attention. But he keeps the ball and powers a low, hard shot a few inches inside the left post. Instantly, Staples’ season ends. The winners pile deliriously atop each other; the Wreckers trudge off the field. Their electrifying, game-tying goal has already been surpassed by a more important one. Another great squad graduates, with incredible memories – and a few "what-ifs."
• Bierman, Deegan, Fitzpatrick, Harrison and Mitchell make the All-FCIAC team. Deegan and Mitchell are also invited to Dallas for the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region I national team tryouts.
• Staples reaches #9 in the Gatorade/USA Today national poll.
• The pre-season Westport News article notes that Ashby "has replaced some unwanted pounds with extra speed and fluidity."
• The junior varsity, coached by former player Mike Smith, goes 12-0-2. Coach Dan Woog’s freshmen are 13-0-0, recording their second consecutive undefeated, untied season, outscoring the opposition 78-3. The 3 Staples teams combine for a 38-1-3 mark this fall.
• Danbury wins the LL championship over Hartford Public, after eliminating Glastonbury 1-0. Newtown takes the L title, and Joel Barlow wins the M crown. So 3 of the 4 state champions come from Fairfield County – and Staples beats and ties 2 of them.
• University of Connecticut head coach Joe Morrone attends his first Staples game in several years. A frequent attendee is Davidson College coach Charlie Slagle, who successfully recruits Deegan.
• Other players not previously mentioned include David Baron, Tom Cirino, Adam Diamond, Brad Farans, Zack Randel, Rick Estera, Eric Volckmann and Mike Weiss.
CO-CAPTAINS: Brad Bierman, Alex Deegan
COACH: Jeff Lea