Pictured: For the third straight year, the Class S champs hail from Old Saybrook. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
HARTFORD – Boy, did they ever earn it.
Playing their third straight overtime game in the CIAC Class S boys soccer tournament, the Old Saybrook Rams weren’t about to flinch this time either.
The No. 2 seed scored three times over the final 30 minutes to win the state championship for the third straight time, 4-1 over No. 8 Canton in a steady rain Sunday night at Dillon Stadium.
Junior midfielder Bradley Kulmann had two goals, including the go-ahead score seven minutes into the 30-minute OT, and junior striker Cameron DeAngelo had a goal and assist as the Rams completed their season unbeaten at 19-0-3.
“Coach always says ‘have hope,'” said Kulmann. “We found ourselves down a few times at the end of season, but we never lost hope. We played even better when we were down and that helped tonight. Playing overtime the last few games, yeah, we were a little tired, but you always have to have hope and just never give up.”
Meanwhile, senior Ryan Slisz, a field player who jumped at the chance to play keeper when there were no other candidates this season, turned away several second-half chances when Canton was pressuring for the lead.
“At the start of this (game), I told them everyone thinks that when they get this far they deserve it, but you have to earn it,” said Old Saybrook coach Steve Waters. “It was a battle. Canton came out great. They had some great performances by players. I think what helped us along was our fitness level. We showed that through the Somers game and this game.”
Ah, the Somers game. To reach Sunday’s big stage, the Rams overcame deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 in that semifinal encounter, scoring the tying goal on a DeAngelo penalty kick with 2 seconds left in regulation and adding two scores in OT for an epic 5-3 victory.
“We’ve been here enough this season that we know how to win it,” Waters said, “and how much work it takes.”
The championship made it a perfect 10 for the 63-year-old coach, who won nine titles across three divisions in 36 seasons with Farmington. He was on the sideline with coach Sam Barnes in 2019 when Old Saybrook went back-to-back, then took the baton from Barnes in 2020.
Because of the pandemic, this was Waters’ first state tournament experience with the Rams. And there was Burns at Dillon Stadium on Sunday, proud and pleased to see the run continue.
“They all rank somewhere. The level of importance, I guess you’d have to ask the players,” Waters said when asked where this title rates on his state-record resume. “I coach in a way that I don’t want them to win it for me, I want them to win it for themselves. When the players understand that the coach wants them to win it for themselves, as opposed to winning it for them, you get a better effect.
“And we had a great effect this year. We were emotionally and psychologically prepared to play this game.”
Canton and Old Saybrook met in the regular season with the Rams winning 2-1. The Warriors reached the Class S final after shutting out No. 1 seed Holy Cross in the quarterfinals and No. 4 Griswold on penalty kicks in the semifinals.
“I thought it was a great game. It was one of the best games I have seen in a long time,” Canton coach Bill Phelps said told GameTimeCT after Sunday’s match. “Old Saybrook did a great job and never stopped. We did a great job and had opportunities just like they did. It was just a fantastic game and a game that could have dropped ether way.”
“I forget who crossed it in, but the keeper tried to punch it and one of his guys actually knocked into him so he didn’t get a good clearance on the ball,” DeAngelo said. “And it just kind of fell right to my head and I was like, there it is, so I headed it right in.”
Old Saybrook’s lead stood at the half before open Canton striker Spencer Mix delivered the equalizer 8:53 into the second half.
DeAngelo had an open look at the goal with 4:08 remaining in regulation, but his shot sailed high.
Another overtime, another challenge that didn’t faze the Rams.
“Those overtime games really just taught us a lot,” said DeAngelo, who included Old Saybrook’s 1-1 tie in the Shoreline tournament final that left his team as co-champs with Morgan. The Rams also went to OT with Valley Regional in the Class S quarterfinals, winning that one 4-3.
“And the regular season too, taught us how to keep our heads as a team and as individuals,” he said. “Head strength and mental strength in soccer is one of the most important things. If you can’t keep your head, you don’t know where you’re going to go.”
Old Saybrook settled the match midway through the first 15-minute OT period when DeAngelo delivered the ball to Kulmann out of a corner kick. 2-1, Rams.
“I was down there in that corner, I did a little Cruyff turn and then I Maradona’ed it to get some separation between my defender,” said DeAngelo. “To be honest I tried to shoot the ball but it kind of deflected off a guy and bounced to Bradley at the back post and he had an easy tap-in.”
Said Kulmann: “I just snuck in and I was like, ‘I’ll just stay here.’ The cross came back in. It was slick out there. A guy got a foot on it, the ball spun off his foot right to me and I tapped it in.”
Kevin DeCapua iced the match with 10:41 left in overtime, also out of a corner kick, with Ryan Stratton providing the assist.
With time winding down, Kulmann sent a booming shot from midfield directly at Canton keeper Jack Biskupiak. The slickness of the ball skipped off his hands and into the net with 31 seconds left.
“I was just trying to clear the ball and kicked it as far as I can,” Kulmann said. “It’s the best moment of my life so far.”
Waters reminded reporters that his lineup had eight underclassmen who played the bulk of the minutes this season.
“They were mature physically, emotionally and psychologically far beyond their years, and my hat’s off to them,” he said.
Waters also spoke about how gratifying it’s been for him to have the opportunity to coach anew at another school that loves its soccer. He has 584 career wins, a state record, and has now won state titles across all four CIAC divisions.
“These kids have been outstanding and the administration has been great,” he said. “I’m happy for the school and the community that they can share in this. There’s a lot of support here.”