Pictured: Old Saybrook players celebrate Thursday’s home win over Valley Regional. The Rams will be the No. 1 seed in the Shoreline Conference tournament for the second consecutive season. (Photo by Danny Atkinson)
By Danny Atkinson
OLD SAYBROOK — All season long, Old Saybrook and Valley Regional have been fighting for sole possession of first place in the Shoreline Conference. On Thursday, the Rams demonstrated that they are still the top dog.
Freshman midfielder Gretchen Kawecki beat her defender and fired a high shot past Maizy Libby to give the Rams a 12-11 lead with just over a minute left. Kawecki’s fourth goal not only sealed the win by that score, but also the conference regular-season title.
Old Saybrook finishes the regular season 15-1 overall and 11-1 in the Shoreline and as the No. 2 seed in Class S. The Rams have won eight straight and got revenge on Valley after losing 13-11 to the Warriors in late April.
After starting 13-0, Valley has lost two straight and will be the No. 2 seed in the Shoreline tournament, which starts next week.
“I’m extremely proud of our senior captains (Grace Adams, attacker Lily Cody, goalie Sam Wakelee),” Rams coach Dick Shriver said when asked about the win and regular-season title. “They’re able to motivate and inspire the team when the going gets tough like today.”
After Valley entered halftime leading 4-3, Old Saybrook scored four goals in the first four minutes to go up 7-4. Chelsea Heinke, Kawecki and Cody (twice) each beat defenders one-on-one to get high-quality shots. The Rams won face-offs before each goal.
The Warriors fought back and tied the game at 8 with 12:52 left. Quality passing and shot selection led to goals by Salmi Miller, Leah Frantz, Emi Bisson and Madison Neviaser. Cody and Kawecki quickly scored to give the Rams a 10-8 lead, but Bison helped Valley again tie the game with a great assist to Grace Haskins and then a goal on a penalty shot at 6:41.
On the following possession, Cody got beat Libby low to give Old Saybrook an 11-10 lead and Miller responded at the 3:25 mark.
Valley committed multiple turnovers and was penalized near the goal in the final three minutes, setting up Kawecki to be the Rams’ lifesaver.
“Their defense went over to the left side, so I just cut back to the middle and the goal was open,” Kawecki said as teammates, close by, cheered her on.
“Our offense got off to a slow start, but it made fewer mistakes in the second half and was much more focused and poised,” Shriver said. Kawecki added that the Rams were attacking the goal more.
Meanwhile, Warriors coach Randy Netsch reflected on his defense’s second-half performance.
“Lily and Gretchen are fast and great shooters. You just have to minimize their impact,” he said. “Some days your defense just isn’t as good.”
Both teams were outstanding defensively for much of the game. The Rams pressured ballhandlers in the crease and limited quality shots, ultimately forcing four turnovers and intercepting two shots. Wakelee added some spectacular saves. In addition to his goalie, Shriver praised senior defensemen Alexa Cody and Lilly Sigersmith for their performances.
In the first half, the squads traded goals before Haskins scored in a crowd with 1:40 remaining to put the Warriors up 4-3 entering halftime.
Cody led Old Saybrook with 5 goals and Kawecki had 4 and an assist. Heinke scored twice and Ayla D’Anna earned 2 assists. Wakelee continued her outstanding run of games with 22 saves. Bison carried Valley with 4 goals and 9 points and Miller and Haskins each scored twice. Libby made 8 saves.
Old Saybrook is the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament for the second consecutive season. It lost to North Branford in last year’s final after going undefeated in Shoreline play. The Rams will host No. 4 Haddam-Killingworth (7-9) in the semifinals Tuesday. Shriver said his team must get off to better starts to win the tournament.
“We need to get ahead early in games under pressure and play well mentally as well as physically.”
Netsch was proud of his team’s effort and thought they played well. Valley has one game remaining at Rockville Friday and is determined to play its best going forward.
“These girls have so much energy. Hopefully we can finish up strong tomorrow and stay healthy and play well,” he said. “I think our momentum is still strong.”
After losing in the second round of the state tournament last season as a No. 1 seed, the Rams are in great position to compete for a championship. Kawecki laid out the formula they must follow.
“We just need to drive at the goal when cutting on offense instead of passing and communicate well defensively,” Shriver said.