Pictured: Middletown’s Dario Rigano takes the ball away from Fitch’s Ryan Mignosa and moves toward the goal in the second half of Thursday’s Class L tournament game. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

MIDDLETOWN – Middletown boys soccer coach Sal Emanuele sees Fitch continuing its run in the CIAC Class L tournament. For his own program, Emanuele sees his players taking the momentum built up over the course of a 12-1-3 regular season and running with it in the next couple of years.

Those were at least two of the takeaways from the No. 3 seed Blue Dragons’ side after a crushing 2-1 overtime loss to No. 14 Fitch in the second round Thursday at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.

Falcons senior James Miner, at 6-foot-3 at least a head taller than any player on Middletown’s roster, used his noggin to put his team ahead with 43 seconds left in the first 10-minute OT period.

The Falcons regained possession following a corner kick and sent the ball from the left wing to the far end of the box, where Miner and two teammates were stationed without a Middletown defender there to challenge. Miner’s header beat Middletown keeper Tyler Hahn to the near post.

“James is not a full-time soccer player, but he’s an athlete,” said Fitch coach Jay Wolfradt.

Miner also proved to be a relentless defensive back Thursday. His prime assignment for the day was to mark forward Marshall Butler, Middletown’s fastest player and a scoring threat whenever he controls the ball.

Butler was held to a handful of shots and did not score.

James Miner (9) had a head for the ball in Fitch’s win over Middletown. He scored the winner in overtime to send the Falcons into the Class L quarterfinal round. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

“His job was 21 (Butler’s jersey number) today and he certainly answered the bell,” Wolfradt said. “We knew he (Butler) is dangerous and has some other parts around him. The key thing for us was each possession’s got to matter, each possession’s got to count.”

Fitch (12-5-0) controlled possession for most of the final 10 minutes of overtime and moves on to the quarterfinals, where it gets a home game against another Falcons team. No. 22 Avon advanced 4-3 on penalty kicks against No. 27 Windsor.

Middletown has been on the upswing since Emanuele’s return as coach four years ago and had great success with a young team this season. The Blue Dragons lose four seniors – top scorer Dario Rigano, Alex Foligno, Joao Oliveira and Seshank Sekar – setting up what should be another run in 2022 with a roster that is now battle-tested.

“I can’t say enough about how proud I am of these guys, especially a young team, just four seniors and a freshman goalkeeper,” Emanuele said. “What we accomplished this year, I can’t be more proud. And we don’t let tonight diminish that. Obviously we were going for the win. That’s a good team, I can see that team going far in the tournament.

“I think maybe the inexperience of having only two or three guys that had played in a state tournament game (was a factor), experience in the tournament and with the big moments like this. I think that was gained today, and we’ll take it and it’ll make us better. The future looks positive.”

In a scoreless first half, Fitch controlled the first 20 minutes and Middletown the next 20. Rigano had two good scoring opportunities in the final seven minutes but shot wide each time.

The Blue Dragons took that momentum into the second half, producing three shots on Fitch sophomore keeper Nathan Virtue in a four-minute stretch. He handled each, but just two minutes later the Dragons broke through when Kris Bocchio’s corner kick found the head of Rigano for a 1-0 lead.

The game’s wildest sequence occurred two minutes later: Hahn smothered a penalty shot by Peter Petropoulos with 30:50 left; Middletown hit the crossbar on its ensuing possession a minute later; and Virtue laid out to his left to knock away a penalty shot by Rigano with 26:40 to go.

His save fired up the Falcons and sent them on a string of possessions that ultimately resulted in the tying goal from Nicolas Cobena-Idrovo with 13:06 remaining.

“That’s a tough team and we knew that going in,” Emanuele said. “We watched film on them for a week and anticipated it was going to be this way. We were as ready as we could be, so give Fitch credit. They were a more experienced team, an older team, and our inexperience and youth showed as the game progressed. But again, it will make us better in the future.”

Wolfradt liked that the Falcons played well together and that their second-half adjustments put them in a position to win.

“We made some mistakes early on, which we were able to adjust in the second half. We knew Middletown was a really good team and we couldn’t give them opportunities for different restarts, and we did that a lot in the first half. There were stupid fouls here and stupid fouls there. That led to a lot of opportunities for them.

“In the second half we cleaned that up. The key thing for us is energy. We gotta want it more than they want it. Middletown took over in the second half of the first half and the first part of the second half. We went down, missed a penalty kick, but never stopped believing. That’s what we preach.”

Wolfradt said the regular-season wars in the Eastern Connecticut Conference with teams like Ledyard and Stonington – both are now quarterfinalists in Class M — prepared the Falcons for the tournament.

“The CCC (Middletown and next opponent Avon are CCC teams) gets a lot of credit, which they should,” he said. “But the ECC, I think we’re very top-heavy. We knocked each other around all season. We learned from our wins down there and our losses down there and it helped us compete today.”

Fitch was 1-5 against Ledyard and Stonington combined this season.

“You hope that failure leads to success, which it did today,” he said.

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