Pictured: Jason Salley gathers the ball during Friday’s Xavier-Cheshire SCC match at Larry McHugh Field in Middletown. (Photo by Andrew Lombardo)
By Andrew Lombardo
MIDDLETOWN — Noah Stevenson’s goal in the 58th minute was the difference in Xavier’s 1-0 win over Cheshire on Friday afternoon at Larry McHugh Field. The win was the Falcons’ sixth straight, putting them at 7-1-0 and in prime position for an SCC — and potentially Class LL title — run.
The first half opened with Cheshire (6-1-1) controlling most of the possession and the Falcons’ struggles to piece together any passes. Despite its unsuccessful attempts to put pressure on Cheshire, Xavier’s own defense, aggressive pressing and high back line allowed for virtually no dangerous chances for the opposition.
“Yesterday we went over transition defense, getting back behind the ball quickly, and putting pressure on them to make mistakes,” Xavier coach Brian Fitzgerald said.
Cheshire’s best first-half opportunity came from a Jack Loura dribble at the Xavier defense in the 13th minute. The shot was blocked, however, and the resulting corner kick was cleared with ease.
Playing the counter attack, the Falcons pushed the ball up the field quickly, with forward Alec Sotomayor coming into the midfield for a flick pass down the sideline where Ryan Gerry found space. Gerry’s cutback pass into the box connected with Brendan Montano, whose shot went just high over the crossbar.
It was not until 20 minutes later, in the 36th minute, that Xavier created another flawless opportunity to score. Pressing the Cheshire defenders, Sotomayor found himself with open space and just one defender to beat after a ricochet sent the ball toward the Cheshire net. Sotomayor’s dribble cutback freed him from the defender just enough for a hard shot, hitting the top right crossbar. The rebound looked to be another chance to score, but Sotomayor was offside.
Following the halftime break, the Falcons found themselves struggling to piece passes together once again.
But as they did they entire day, they kept pressing the ball aggressively and cutting off any gaps for Cheshire to exploit. It was on the Falcons’ first sense of momentum driving the ball forward that Stevenson executed the game’s lone goal. He floated down the right flank unnoticed, as Gerry sent in a beautiful, curving cross that found his teammate for the finish at the far post.
“The defender on the left side was weak, he couldn’t cover me, so I took the opportunity to get in front of him and that was a really good cross (from Gerry),” Stevenson said. “I was glad to score the goal.”
The Falcons’ best chance at an insurance goal came in the 66th minute when Sotomayor made another dangerous dribble at the Cheshire back line, this time finding himself space for a shot in the box. He sent it just wide.
“Against a good team like Cheshire you’re not going to have a lot of opportunities,” Fitzgerald said. “A 1-0 game is typical for a well-disciplined conference game and we definitely need to keep working on finishing and improving that.”
As the match’s final minutes ticked away, Xavier kept up its impressive team defense and disciplined structure, showing their fitness as well.
Fitzgerald credited his team’s experience and chemistry for the win and season-long streak.
“It’s a great mix of senior leadership and young guys that are hungry,” he said. “They’re starting to buy in to what we’ve been stressing from the beginning, and when you’re playing for one another you’re going to have success.”
Next week the Falcons will play host to two tough opponents — Bacon Academy on Wednesday and an SCC rematch against Guilford, their only loss a week ago.
“We’re not taking teams lightly,” Stevenson said. “We’re taking it to heart and going to play every team like Cheshire today.”