Pictured: A battle for the ball leaves a Portland and an H-K player grounded while Highlanders keeper Zach Doncet tries to find a path to the save. Doncet eventually got control of the ball. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

HIGGANUM — Four months ago, Jack DeToro was in a wheelchair, thinking a lot about his senior soccer season at Portland while healing from double-leg surgery.

DeToro underwent a procedure for compartment syndrome, which causes increased pressure in the muscles and can lead to potential nerve damage. Rather than rectify the problem one leg at a time, it was decided he would have surgery on both, therefore reducing his recovery time from six months to three.

On Thursday afternoon, DeToro was running and celebrating on two strong legs, his nearly shoulder-length hair flapping behind him after scoring the winning goal in Portland’s 2-1 victory over Haddam-Killingworth.

“My legs feel much better than what they have,” said DeToro, a striker. “They get to that point of sore, just because I’m brand new to running again. I spent four months off my legs. About a month ago I was just starting to move again. I had bandages wrapped around my legs. I looked like a mummy.”

“I haven’t even conditioned yet,” he said. “I’ve just been going to practices, getting a couple of touches in, and (coach Mike Searson) has just been throwing me into the game and seeing what I can do. It feels really good to be back out here.”

DeToro atoned for two misfires earlier in the match when, with three minutes remaining, he got a clean opportunity coming up the right side and drilled a shot to left corner, well out of the reach of H-K keeper Jack Straka.

“You gotta keep playing and put your misses behind you,” he said. “I know I missed an easy chip at the beginning of the game. It was an intense game, and want to put the ball at the back of the net, so you just have to keep going.”

Searson, who acknowledged that DeToro could probably use more rest beyond the 7-minute break he gave him in the first half and the 5-minute spell in the second, was ecstatic for his player.

Jack DeToro (center) is getting his legs under him after surgery in the spring. “The fact he is where he is now is pretty amazing,” Portland coach Mike Searson said. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“Trying to tell Jack DeToro to stop shooting is not going to happen,” the coach said with a laugh. “I’m glad he has a short-term memory and went back in there and ripped one into the bottom corner. He was in and out of the lineup last year after an incredible sophomore season. The fact he is where he is now is pretty amazing. For him to come back, we need that spark.”

The loss was another late-game blow for the defending Shoreline Conference champion Cougars (0-2-1), who lost for the second straight game on a goal in the final minutes. H-K had tied the match five minutes before DeToro’s winner on a Cole Merriam penalty kick.

“It’s the second game in a row where we crawled our way back and allowed a late goal,” Cougars coach Mike Mead said. “We transitioned back on defense the way we wanted to. We kind of allowed Jack over there, who has a terrific shot, to get the look that he wanted. We can’t allow things like that to happen. We have to just adjust better.”

Portland (2-0-0) took a 1-0 lead on a blast by senior Caiden Hettrick-Rivera just 8 minutes into what was a physical, tense and testy “rivalry” game. Hettrick-Rivera was alone with the ball at the 18 and buried a left-footed shot inside the left post.

“What a shot!” the sideline official exclaimed.

Searson was pleased with the play of seniors DeToro, Hettrick-Rivera, Brady Talerico and keeper Zach Doncet, plus the performances of his underclassmen.

“We knew H-K would be strong and play a physical game,” he said. “The seniors definitely led the way today, but couple of our young guys really showed up and had a good game for this early in their (varsity) career. Raymond Lin off the bench wasn’t playing like a freshman, and (sophomore) Cooper Beck had a really good game.”

H-K’s Cole Merriam had to contend with multiple Portland defenders from start to finish Thursday. He scored the Cougars’ lone goal on a penalty kick. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

Merriam, H-K’s sophomore striker and scorer of the goal that gave H-K the Shoreline championship last fall, had to fight off two and sometimes three relentless Portland defenders to give himself chances on net. He had a good opportunity at an equalizer just eight minutes into the second half but shot wide.

Portland finally crossed the line with its physical play when Merriam was pulled down from behind about a half-yard inside the box. He converted the PK easily with 7:10 to go in the game.

“In the first two (Shoreline) games, (including a 2-1 loss to Old Saybrook), we’ve already seen him get double- and triple-teamed,” Mead said. “Not many guys in the Shoreline are like that. Kudos to Cole for (attracting) that pressure and having that name out there already as a sophomore. Everybody has to worry about him, but we have to find a way to play around him and through him.”

Searson sees the penalty as a learning experience for the Highlanders.

“Part of it is a learning process and being able to know when to be overly competitive and know when to take a step back,” he said. “It’s something we have to keep working at and grow up on a little bit. The only way to grow is you have to make those mistakes.”

Portland opened the season with a 7-1 win over Old Lyme. The Highlanders join Morgan, Valley Regional and Old Saybrook as the only Shoreline teams off to unbeaten starts.

“This was definitely a statement,” said DeToro. “We’re going to take this and run with it. Game after game, just do what we do. Today we played really well. If do that every game, I don’t think there’s a team that can beat us.”

Said Searson: “I loved the way that they responded to that PK. They knew they had to get it done and fortunately we were able to finish out on a high note.”

Portland is off until Tuesday, when it takes on Hale-Ray in Moodus. H-K plays St. Paul in Bristol on Saturday before resuming Shoreline play against North Branford on Monday and Coginchaug on Thursday.

“Hopefully (this loss) grows us,” Mead said. “Unfortunately it puts us in a position now where we’re a little bit down, but if we can rack up a few W’s we can put these last two behind us.”

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