Pictured: Cromwell keeper James Grodzicki can’t quite get to this penalty kick by Ben O’Dell (not shown) in the second half of their SLC tournament match.
By Paul Augeri
OLD SAYBROOK – There are no gimmes in the Shoreline Conference soccer tournament. And this year, maybe no favorite.
It didn’t take much for annual title contender Old Saybrook to discover this Saturday. And for Cromwell, its one glaring mistake in the teams’ quarterfinal match was enough to crush their hopes of advancing as the tournament’s sixth seed.
The difference on the scoreboard turned out to be a penalty kick.
Rams freshman Bradley Kulmann was pulled down inside the box by Cromwell’s Matt Sbriglio early in the second half. Senior Ben O’Dell took the penalty shot and buried it inside the near post, a 49th-minute score that held up for a 1-0 Old Saybrook victory.
The third-seeded Rams (11-2-4) push on to the semifinal round, where they will play on the road against Coginchaug on Tuesday.
“The Shoreline, it could go any way,” coach Sam Barnes said after the Rams’ 11th straight match without a loss. “We’re all good teams. We beat each other up and then we have to face each other (potentially) in the states.”
Coach Angelo Morello’s Panthers (9-5-3) came into the match on a season-changing run – 7-1-2 to finish the regular season. Their only defeat came four weeks ago against the Rams – “we were totally outplayed,” Morello said.
That match, Barnes said, had the potential to mess with his players’ mental preparation for Saturday.
“It’s probably the toughest thing as a coach,” he said, “because high school players look into that – ‘4-1 we beat them last time, we’ll show up and beat them again,’ and that’s not the case.
“I knew they were going to come out hard and tough, and we held them off. I was just afraid that if they got one goal and got ahead, they’d just park the bus and go for the win, and we were able to hold them off.”
Morello did not like the game-changing call that went against Sbriglio.
“(The referee) called it, it wasn’t a good call, but we have to live with it and move on,” he said. “The second half, we had to play that way (aggressively). The first half, they dictated play and I thought for the next 40 minutes, if it was going to be like that it wasn’t going to be good for us.”
The Panthers, who were outshot 16-11, had some excellent opportunities to score the equalizer late in the match.
Old Saybrook’s defense kept Cromwell’s top scoring threat, Anthony Caracoglia, in check for the most part. He had a terrific chance though, with about six minutes left when he got possession at around the 18. His shot was sent directly into the waiting arms of Old Saybrook keeper Matt Rothman.
“Rothman had a great game today,” Barnes said.
At this stage of the season, Rothman said, each match is a grind.
“You really have to come in and put in the effort day in and day out, both on the field and in practice,” the junior said. “If you do that, you should be able to put together a win. But it’s just about coming in with that (workmanlike) mentality every single day.”
About two minutes after he thwarted Caracoglia, Rothman squared up on a rocket off the right foot of Zach Randazzo from 25 yards out. It turned out to be the last best chance for Cromwell to tie the match, and Rothman, who had nine saves on the day, deflected the shot over the crossbar.
“Anytime that you can sort of see the defense break down, you can almost see a seam open up for a pass to go through,” he said. “At that point, you start to feel pressure. There was one ball that came across, I saw an opening in the defense and thought he was going to have a shot here.
“Once you understand that a shot is probably going to be coming your way, you have to be fully set and ready to make the save. The biggest thing is making sure that you’re locked in all the time.”
Cromwell’s junior keeper, James Grodzicki, finished with nine saves.
The Panthers were limited to two shots in the first half.
“We were on our heels, we weren’t controlling the ball in the midfield, we weren’t using out outside mids,” Morello said. “I thought everything was forced to Anthony, and they keyed on Anthony all game. But you know, when he gets free he can create, and he had chances to set some people up, but they didn’t finish.”
Cromwell is locked in for a home match in the first round of the Class S tournament. The Panthers have played in Class M in the past, but now there is the potential to run into Shoreline opponents again, and possibly the defending state champion Rams.
“I told the team there might be an opportunity that we see them again,” Morello said. “We’re just going to go back to work. We can win this thing, too, as a 10th seed. We’ve played Old Saybrook twice and we’ve played Lyman Memorial (a 1-1 tie; Lyman unofficially is the fourth seed in Class S). We’ve played these teams pretty equal and if we come in and play and worry about what we do well, we can make a good run here.
“You want to give Old Saybrook credit. They are the defending Class S champions and we played with them. We can play with anybody in Class S right now. We’ll get back at it on Monday and go for this and see what happens.”