By Danny Atkinson
OLD SAYBROOK — For 78 minutes on Thursday, Cameron DeAngelo and the Old Saybrook offense had seen quality scoring opportunities end in frustration against a resilient Portland defense and goalie Zach Doncet.
With the CIAC Class S second-round tournament matchup scoreless and on the verge of going to overtime, DeAngelo stepped up and made something happen for the Rams.
The senior captain was able to get around his defender and got an open shot in front of and just to the right of the net to beat goalie Doncet low and to his left with 1:55 remaining. Portland failed to obtain a good scoring opportunity the rest of the way.
The Rams, seeded second in Class S and still undefeated at 17-0-3, advanced to the quarterfinals on Saturday against fellow Shoreline Conference member Valley Regional, a team the Rams beat twice in the regular season. The 10th-seeded Warriors beat Hale-Ray 6-1 Thursday.
Portland won a game for the second consecutive tournament and ends the season 10-7-2, the Highlanders best winning percentage in a decade. This was their third loss of the season to the Rams.
DeAngelo analyzed his goal.
“I was able to beat my main defender and luckily the guy backing him up was playing his position poorly,” he said. “I brought the ball up to the middle of the box and kicked it hard enough beat the keeper. I knew I had to finish the shot.”
“In the state tournament anything can happen. It’s a very fragile competition, and all you need is one play (to change the outcome),” Old Saybrook coach Steve Waters said. “You need a player who can make something happen, and Cam did.”
Portland coach Mike Searson acknowledged how disappointing it was to lose in such a fashion.
“It’s always hard to lose this time of year, but there’s a little more salt in the wound when it happens that late after playing such solid defense for 78 minutes,” Searson said.
Nine days after the Rams defeated the Highlanders 3-0 in the Shoreline tournament, Thursday’s game was more competitive throughout. Old Saybrook controlled the tempo, playing quickly and aggressively.
In the first half, the Rams pushed downfield and advanced the ball close to the net, but Portland’s defenders did an effective job of recovering and deflecting shots and passes and trapping players. When Old Saybrook obtained good looks at the goal, the Rams did a poor job of locating shots or were thwarted by Doncet. His most impressive save came midway through the half when he blocked a powerful kick by Kevin DeCapua head on.
Meanwhile, Portland could gain no traction on offense in the opening 40 minutes. The Ram defenders swarmed to the ball and forced countless turnovers while rarely allowing Portland to advance the ball past midfield. The Highlanders had just three shots on goal in the half and seven the entire game.
Despite Waters giving a halftime speech that DeAngelo described as inspiring, Old Saybrook continued to play inefficiently on offense until the final minutes.
“We continued to not play our best and made poor passes repeatedly,” DeAngelo said. “Our defense stepped up until I got my chance.”
The Rams did not take advantage of headers and had multiple close kicks go just wide of the net. Doncet, who finished with 11 saves, also made a handful of outstanding saves and multiple diving stops.
Meanwhile, Portland’s offense continued to be swallowed up by physical defenders who trapped ballhandlers and forced poor passes, especially closer to the goal.
Waters and Searson each discussed the impact the Rams defense had.
“Our defenders kept pretty tight back there and covered each other’s mistakes,” Waters said. “The shots we did allow weren’t of high quality and from far out.”
“I think we sort of limited ourselves on offense,” Searson said. “We were asking players to (regularly) get the ball upfield while playing defense, and during a game that wears on your legs.”
Searson praised the work of his defense, singling out Doncet, Cole Bates, Evan Johnson, Ryan Clarke and Giovanni Discenza for their efforts.
Old Saybrook finished the game with 12 shots on goal, while Rams keeper Ryan Slisz recorded six saves.
The Rams are looking to win a third consecutive Class S championship, and visibly have the confidence to do it.
“This game gave us a big lift heading into the next practice and has us thinking this is our state championship to win,” said DeAngelo.
“This is one game at a time,” Waters cautioned. “It will be tough playing a conference opponent that knows us well.”
Searson emphasized that Portland has nowhere to go but up.
“There’s a lot of positives to take away from this season,” he said. “The players are demonstrating a lot of growth. We just have to get to that next level.”