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Montville - Even the worst possible catastrophe in terms of a soccer game, playing its opponent 10 vs. 11 for the second half as well as overtime, couldn't keep Norwich Free Academy from feeling like everything's been going its way lately.
Mason Rivera headed in the game-winning "golden" goal 56 seconds into the second overtime period Wednesday night, ending things as No. 4 NFA defeated top-seeded Waterford 3-2 in the semifinals of the Eastern Connecticut Conference boys' soccer tournament at Montville High School.
Rivera removed his No. 8 jersey as the crowd of Wildcats players exploded onto the field to celebrate their second straight one-goal victory in the tournament.
NFA, which defeated Bacon Academy 3-2 in the first round on Saturday with two goals in a 15-second span of the second half, advanced to meet East Lyme in the championship game to be played at 6:30 p.m. Friday night, also at Montville.
"It's all adrenalin. It's all heart. If the heart's there, you can do it," said Rivera, whose goal came off a throw-in by Izaak Miller.
"Often you find when a team goes a man down, they work ever harder," Waterford coach Joe Mendonca Jr. said of the game's outcome. "NFA outworked us in the second half, as well as the overtime. We got a few shots, but not what we're used to. They had determination."
The man advantage for Waterford (16-2) came with the first half nearing completion and the score tied 2-2.
NFA's Nick Ladyga and Waterford's Aaron Schwartz were both hit with yellow cards after becoming tangled up, but Ladyga, being held back by a teammate, was hit with a second one, as well, causing his ejection from the game.
When the second half began, however, the referees allowed NFA (12-4-1) an 11th player for the first 10 minutes, until tournament chair Scott Elliott produced a rulebook stating otherwise. The original ruling of allowing the 11th NFA player, who was soon removed, confused even NFA coach Robert Briones, who is a college soccer official.
"To play down with 10 men, and we didn't sub a lot, it just feels like a tournament game to me," Briones said, "the pride, the desire, the heart, the leadership of the kids."
"We lost to them 5-0 the first game of the year at home, but going into this game we knew we were a different team," Rivera said. "We've been tying teams and going into overtime. Tied 2-2 in the second half, that was nothing for us. Part of it was luck, but it seems like everything's going well for us."
Miller scored the first goal for NFA and then goalie Seth Strader stopped a penalty kick by Schwartz at the 24:13 mark of the first half, knocking the ball down and covering it up to maintain the 1-0 lead for the Wildcats.
Schwartz avenged the miss with two straight goals in a five-minute span and NFA's Colby Coombs scored to make it 2-2 on an assist from Miller.