Pictured: After posting the Shoreline’s best regular-season record, the Cougars won the tournament title for the second straight season. (Contributed photo)
By Danny Atkinson
CLINTON — Despite trailing 4-2 at halftime to Morgan in Thursday’s Shoreline Conference championship game, Haddam-Killingworth players were not going to panic. The Cougars were down at halftime against Valley Regional in the semifinals before winning, and they won plenty of close regular-season games. H-K regrouped, made adjustments and trusted its defense.
“We never give up and think we are going to lose the game,” coach Fred Federico said. “A game is 48 minutes and not 24 and we just play with that mindset.”
After falling behind 4-1 in the second quarter, H-K scored six consecutive goals to take a 7-4 lead in the third. The Cougars’ zone defense shut down Morgan for much of the second half and outlasted the Huskies for a 7-6 victory and second consecutive tournament championship.
Morgan, the No. 3 seed and upset winner over No. 2 Old Lyme in the semis, fell to 10-8.
H-K senior captain and defenseman Sam Young was exuberant about repeating as champions.
“It’s awesome to repeat,” he said. “Coach Federico was absolutely amazing this season in his first year. He implemented his own ideas and they worked very well. I’ve been playing with the other seniors for more than a decade and for us to win it together is a blessing.”
After Nolan Braren fired a groundball shot past goalie Abraham Adams-Hull near the end of the first half to cut the deficit to 4-2, the Cougars came roaring out of halftime.
Alex Phipps won the opening face-off and brought it up the field and scored on a high shot 47 seconds in. Just 1:22 later, his brother Corey scored on a ground shot to tie the game. The pair continued their hot streak, as Alex scored 29 seconds later and Corey scored in front of the goal off a great pass from Jake Insalaco 1:20 later. He beat his defender while falling to the ground a minute later, putting the Cougars up 7-4.
H-K (14-4) dominated possession during the third quarter and attacked the goal more. Its high-quality shots were much more accurate than in the first half. The Cougars’ ability to consistently win face-offs and ground balls to help pressure defenders.
Federico said his team’s offensive approach wasn’t any different during the 6-0 run.
“I knew the goals were going to come,” he said. “We knew the goalie was susceptible and how to get good looks from scouting them, and we did a pretty good offensively with the lead.”
Morgan coach Dennis Forbes analyzed H-K’s run.
“We just got a couple of unlucky bounces and they won the ground-ball war,” he said. “They got free in transition and it led to goals.”
Meanwhile, H-K’s switch to a zone defense paid huge dividends in the second half, especially when it held Morgan scoreless in the third quarter. After Aiden Madura put his team up 4-1 with 4:43 remaining in the first half, the Huskies were held scoreless for 18:29 before Madura scored with 9:48 remaining in the game. The defense forced multiple turnovers in the third and used their physicality to limit possession and quality shots for the Huskies.
“We knew they were going to attack our midfielders in the second half,” Young said. “Switching to zone helped us stop them from shooting up top and win.”
Morgan did a better job of moving the ball in the fourth and winning ground balls and ultimately possessed the ball for much of it. Madura struck 2:12 in with his leaping goal, cutting the deficit to two.
Over the next nine-plus minutes, the Huskies had multiple shots that were wide or above the goal.
Civiello made a key save with 52 seconds remaining. Casey Corrigan beat him low to make it 7-6 with 10.2 left, but H-K won the face-off to secure its title.
Federico discussed how special it was to win the conference championship as a first-year coach.
“We set out to repeat coming into the season and for it to come to fruition is really rewarding,” he said. “I can’t wait for next season.”
Federico praised Insalaco for his performance on defense and the Phipps brothers and Braren on offense, as well as Civiello.
The Huskies were very strong in the first 24 minutes, particularly on defense. H-K took 15 shots but many were deflected or saved against Morgan’s physical defense. Meanwhile, it consistently got to ground balls and pushed the tempo offensively, leading to high-quality shots.
Madura tied the game at 1 6:25 in before scoring twice midway through the second. Mastriano added a goal and Morgan took a 4-1 lead with 4:43 left.
Corey Phipps led H-K with 3 goals and an assist and his brother and Braren scored twice, with the latter adding an assist. Gunnar Howes and Cooper Pitts also had assists. The Cougars won 11 ground balls.
Madura led Morgan with 4 goals and Corrigan had a goal and assist. Mastriano also scored and Ben McDonnell had its other assist.
The Huskies ended the regular season winning three of four and had great tournament efforts against Old Lyme and H-K. Forbes was very proud of their recent play.
“We’ve started to regain our confidence and realized playing as a team is the key to success,” he said. “I’m proud of their tournament play, they gave it their all. I wouldn’t take any other players on my team.”
H-K has earned the No. 8 seed in in the CIAC Class S tournament and will host No. 9 Tolland (13-5) in the first round on Wednesday. The Cougars beat Tolland in the first round of last year’s tournament before losing in the quarterfinals.
If the Cougars beat Tolland, they most likely will face No. 1 Waterford in the quarters. No. 13 Morgan will host No. 20 Valley Regional (7-10) in a qualifying-round game on Friday. It beat the Warriors twice in the regular season. If the Huskies win, they will travel to No. 4 Sheehan (12-4) on Wednesday. They failed to qualify last season.
Forbes discussed what Morgan would need to do to beat Valley and advance.
“We need to limit their midfielders and try to attack the rack offensively,” he said. “Both teams know each other well. I’m confident we could go on a tournament run.”
Federico is also confident in his team’s chances but emphasized the importance of his players getting healthy.
“We need to take our time to rest,” he said. “We have a small team and having everyone healthy is a challenge. I think Tolland is a good matchup for us and it will be a fun game.”