By Paul Augeri
A day after his team’s super-charged overtime win in the CIAC Class S semifinals, Old Saybrook boys soccer coach Steve Waters found just the right word for it.
“Breathtaking,” Connecticut’s all-time winningest coach said.
Old Saybrook’s 18th win of the season took the prize for best drama of the tournament after the No. 2 seed Rams twice rallied from two different two-goal deficits to beat No. 6 Somers 5-3.
Cam DeAngelo’s penalty kick with 2 seconds left in regulation sent the match into OT. He scored the go-ahead goal early in OT and Nick Rothman iced the win at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain. The Rams will play for a third straight Class S championship Sunday against No. 8 Canton (6:30pm) at Dillon Stadium in Hartford.
“It’s a hard game to describe to anyone who didn’t see it,” Waters said. “And it’s even harder to describe to someone who’s not a soccer person. This is the best comeback a team of mine has ever had.”
Waters won nine state titles in 36 seasons at Farmington before joining former Old Saybrook coach Sam Barnes’ staff for the 2019 season (and second straight Class S crown). He has coached in 729 matches and can’t think of many with as wild a swing in good fortune.
“What’s stuck in my head mostly was the amount of fouls we had to absorb. That and our fitness factor was huge at the end of the game and in overtime,” he said. “We noticed that when Somers played Coventry (in the second round) and that game went to overtime, they had four or five kids come off with leg cramps.”
Knowing the field at Veterans Stadium was three yards wider on each side than any field Old Saybrook has played on, Waters prepared the Rams accordingly. He used just five substitutes and 13 players in all Thursday, a testament to the team’s fitness and endurance levels and its comfort level in tight games – nine this season by Waters’ count.
“Willowbrook is a huge field,” he said. “We knew that going in and put out cones to extend our field for our training sessions. And we thought maybe Somers’ fitness level might not be able to endure with all that space to cover. We used five subs. We only used 13 players and my guys were fine.”
Waters starts eight underclassmen, including DeAngelo, who again performed beyond their ages. They played with what has become a quality Waters likes to speak to: emotional efficiency.
“Hat’s off to my team, they found a high level of emotional efficiency for themselves, as individuals and as a group,” he said. “It’s the first time I’m recognizing this term. I guess it’s my term now. Their emotional efficiency was superior to ward off and absorb the fouls that were going on and the emotion from that, too.”
The match was scoreless through 50 minutes before Somers’ Thomas Lafayette put two goals on the board in the next six minutes. DeAngelo cut the deficit in half three minutes later. Patrick Brown gave the Spartans a 3-1 lead that held up until the final 5:30 of regulation, when Kevin DeCapua gave the Rams their second goal and hope that they had enough time to pull even.
After watching film, Waters’ perspective said that the game-changing foul on DeAngelo, a junior striker, was clear.
“The foul started outside the box. The defender was pulling him from just at the top of the box and Cam was still going,” Waters said. “I watched the replay and the defender swept his leg under him at the penalty mark. It was a legit call and Cam knew he was taking the shot. There was no question who on our team was getting that shot.”
During the five-minute break before overtime began, Waters decided to take his players back to their locker room under the stands so they could collective themselves and think about the next 20 minutes.
“My thought was to get them out of that emotional environment and have them breathe,” he said,” and then we just discussed what had happened. I told them to play with passion and not emotion. They were very good (in overtime) and that’s why I say we were highly efficient emotionally.
“Remember, I only have three seniors, so we’re talking about 4 sophomore starters and four junior starters. When you say we’re taking about kids who are 14 and 15 years old, and our average age is probably 16. For this type of competition, what they did is just huge. They didn’t crumble.”
Old Saybrook carries an 18-0-3 record into Sunday’s final against a Canton team that it’s already seen this season, winning 3-2 in October.
Waters, who has 583 career wins, won the last of nine championships with Farmington in 2016, intends to go see his former program play for the Class LL title against Cheshire on Saturday night. He also has special ties to Wethersfield, his alma mater, which is in the M final against Fitch. Waters’ first coaching gig was with the Eagles as an assistant.
The coach won state titles in Class LL, L and M with Farmington, and it’s believed a title Sunday would make him the first coach to win a soccer championship across all four CIAC divisions.
Friday and Saturday, the Rams are going to ease themselves back into the game before turning up their thermostats on Sunday.
“Today we’ll just talk about (the semifinal) and enjoy it and absorb what really happened yesterday,” Waters said. “We’ll jog a little bit, stretch a little bit, kick the ball around. We won’t talk about Canton until Saturday’s training session. That’s when we’ll put the game behind us in order to go forward.”