Pictured: Playing in its first state championship game, Mercy earned a share of the Class M crown. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
HARTFORD – Mercy wanted the CIAC Class M girls soccer championship all to itself.
It was obvious from the long looks among the Tigers on Saturday that they were dissatisfied to come away with only a piece of it at Dillon Stadium.
The match between two Southern Connecticut Conference rivals promised drama but didn’t deliver as No. 4 seed Mercy and No. 3 Sacred Heart Academy played to a 110-minute scoreless draw and declared co-champions.
Both squads were making their first appearance in a state final. The teams saw each other three weeks ago in the SCC tournament semifinals, a 2-1 Mercy win in the final two minutes of regulation, and were well prepared for each other.
“I’m happy that we didn’t lose because we don’t really like losing,” Tigers keeper Melina Ford said after Saturday’s medal ceremony. “I’m just a little frustrated because we gave it our all. It’s a good tie. You just don’t want to tie in this type of game.”
Mercy coach Marcus Harley said he’d like to see penalty kicks restored in the championship game. The finals currently call for two 15-minute overtime periods played to completion and no PKs.
“How do we get that rule changed?” he asked. “If we’re going to play PKs in the first (and) second (rounds), the quarterfinals and semifinals, the most important game (should, too). They could take a poll, all the girls and all the boys, and ask who wants to be a co-champion? One team is crying. I don’t know about the other team, they’re probably celebrating, but we’re the crying team.”
In retrospect, the play of the game occurred with 25:50 left in the second half. And had it gone Sacred Heart’s way, Mercy might not have a share of the championship to call its own.
Sharks senior Juliana Criscola, who was mostly kept in check by the excellent play of Mercy’s back line, was charging in from the left side. Ford came out to challenge the shot and got a piece of it, sending the ball skyward and back toward the mouth of the goal.
Mercy freshman defender Kaylea Micale put her head on it before senior Jess Eaton attempted to clear it for good. Her attempt hit the underside of the crossbar, bounced back into play without crossing the goal line, and was finally cleared away.
“Jess Eaton saved that ball from going in,” Mercy coach Marcus Harley said. “It was a fantastic defensive play. That’s not the first time Jess has done that. She’s a hard-working player.”
Sacred Heart coach Everson Maciel was on the side of the field closest to the play and said the ball did not break the plane.
“It was a great call by the refs. No question on that,” he said. “It was so close. A little bit more and it would be a win for us. But I think we did everything we tried to do to win.”
All told, neither team had great chances to establish a lead in regulation.
“Both teams did not have many chances, and those ones that got through, they were there (to stop),” Ford said.
Mercy’s back line of starters Julia Nadolski, Micale and Avery Kohs kept a lid on forwards Criscola and Juliana Garcia, the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“The game was pretty even,” Harley said. “Give Sacred Heart credit and give our girls credit. We both came out and played hard. It could have gone either way. I think (Ford) made a couple of good saves to prevent (a Sacred Heart win).
In overtime, Harley was liberal with substitutions up front because “we were going for the win.”
“The final was well-played by both teams,” said first-year coach Maciel, whose third-seeded Sharks finish the season 17-2-3. “You always want to have one winner, so it’s a different feeling, of course. As soon as they blew the whistle, we didn’t see anybody celebrating. It’s a weird feeling, but I think I saw both teams happy calling themselves state champions, and they both deserve it.”
Mercy turned in perhaps the most accomplished season in the history of the program.
The Tigers won their first SCC title, beating a deep and veteran Amity team – the top seed in the Class LL tournament – on penalty kicks. Mercy trailed 2-0 in the match.
The Tigers nearly won 20 games, finishing 19-2-3. Outside of senior captain Eaton, every starter will be back next season. Eaton protectively referred to the younger players as her “babies.”
“Most of them are so incredibly talented,” she said. “The sophomores and freshmen, it’s so crazy to me that they’re able to stay calm under pressure and do what they need to do. I’m really proud of all of them.”
Said Ford, who had 15 shutouts this season: “I’m really proud of all of them. I couldn’t ask for a better defense. And I’m so proud of Jess. I’ve seen her grow up since my freshman year. She was my first friend on the team. I’m just so proud of her.”