The Old Saybrook girls’ soccer team has had a flare for excitement this fall, evident of its ascent to the Class S final and being the No. 11 seed that made it to the championship—for the first time in program history, no less. The Rams—who won both the quarterfinal and semifinal in penalty kicks—faced 5th-seeded Portland on the evening of Nov. 16 at Middletown High School and the night ended in a scoreless tie after two overtime periods, giving Old Saybrook a share of the state crown.
“It’s better than a loss, but when you come from two penalty-kick wins to two top teams, you kind of want to finish it, but it’s still good that you didn’t lose. But it does kind of have that anticlimactic feel, sadly,” said Coach Larry Bright, whose squad defeated 3rd-seeded Coginchaug 1-0 (3-1 in penalty kicks) in the quarterfinal and 2nd-seeded St. Bernard 1-0 (3-0 in PKs) in the semis. “I’m so happy for the players and what they accomplished this year. A title is a title. This blew away my expectations for the season. I thought we’d qualify for the tournament, maybe get to the quarterfinals, but once we got to the semis, I knew there was no stopping us at this point.”
What stood out the most was undoubtedly the Rams’ All-State senior captain and goalkeeper Mia Neas, who made 15 saves on 18 shots on the night and countless defensive stops in the contests leading up to the final.
“We worked hard all season and it’s better than a loss—I love being part of this team, so I really do think it’s a win,” said Neas, who was named MVP of the game. “This season has been really great and I’m really proud of the girls. No one thought that we would get here, so it’s been a great experience. I love the competition and it’s a great way to end the season instead of losing.”
The first half saw Portland—which defeated Saybrook (12-5-3) twice during the regular season—dominate offensively, keeping the ball on its end of the field for a majority of the first 40 minutes. Aided by defenders Gabby Rose, Lizzie O’Brien, and senior captain Mary Kate Morrison, Neas’ work was somewhat limited as she saved seven shots in the first half. Portland also missed several chances at goals, including a few that either hit the crossbar or just missed wide. The Rams’ best and only chance to score during the half was by Molly Beck at the 9:30 mark after she stole the ball in Portland’s box and dribbled the ball speedily down field, aiming it at the Highlanders’ keeper Marisa Dimare (5 saves). The contest was scoreless at the half.
“Clearly we have a very amazing goalie; we’re so blessed to have her. We are a defensive-minded team, we’re very aggressive and we get very competitive and don’t like people getting by us, so we tried to push up a lot,” said Morrison. “We just tried to hold them off as long as we could.”
Neas was tested a bit more in the second half, fending off 13 Portland shots, including one early in the half off a Highlander corner kick that landed right in Neas’ hands. Saybrook’s defense continued to work overtime, as Amanda Simoni and Maggie Smith combined to block a shot on goal before the deflected ball was taken and missed the net, hitting the crossbar once again.
Beck gave the Rams another offensive boost, earning a shot at the 24:25 mark before Portland was given a direct kick that ultimately missed wide. The Highlanders continued to pound Neas with the ball, including at the 20-minute mark when it appeared Portland had its first goal, but the ball deflected off Neas, bounced to the crossbar, then back to the ground and into her arms. Rose had another shot for Saybrook and as the clock wound down to the end of regulation, Portland took one last aim at the goal that forced Neas to dive for the save as the buzzer signaled the end of the scoreless game.
“I saw that the girl was open wide and I knew she was going to cross it; all I knew is I had to get to the person she was going to cross it to,” said Neas on that last diving save. “So I was just ready for it and let myself go and luckily, it was to the left of me and not to the other corner.”
Both 15-minute overtime periods belonged to Saybrook, which picked up its intensity substantially. Despite the back-and-forth nature of the game, the Rams dominated play and had the ball on their side of the field, but it was Portland this time that saw its defense kick it up a notch, leading to neither team scoring and finishing the contest with a 0-0 tie and a share of the state title.
“It’s a long way coming—before we came in freshman year four years ago, the team’s records were terrible, so to be here winning a state championship, even if it’s co-champs, it’s just amazing to be on top,” said Morrison. “The whole way here we were the underdogs and the lower seed, so it’s been great. I love the suspense of it—we go into PKs, it’s very emotional—but we always try to keep composure because that’s what our team is about.”