NFA falls to Plainfield in ECC semis, but Wildcats' season hasn't been without magic
Montville — It was early in the preseason, before first-year head coach Kyle Baron even knew his players very well, and the Norwich Free Academy girls' soccer team told Baron their hopes.
"They said, 'Coach, we want a magical season,'" Baron said. "I told them, 'Let's talk about it again in November.' Tonight, I told them, 'You wanted a magical season, you got it.'"
NFA lost Tuesday night in the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament girls' soccer semifinals, 1-0 on a header by Plainfield's Izzy Newbury in double overtime. Plainfield, the top seed, will meet No. 3 Woodstock Academy — a 3-1 winner over Bacon Academy in the other semifinal — in the championship game at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at East Lyme.
But what NFA accomplished this season under Baron headed into the Class LL state tournament next week definitely qualifies as a little bit of magic. The Wildcats went from 8-10-1 a year ago to 13-6 this season with an ECC Division I title. And that's with four freshmen in the starting lineup.
The Wildcats beat divisional rival Ledyard in the first round of the ECC tournament 3-0, then outlasted defending tournament champion East Lyme in penalty kicks in Friday's quarterfinal round. On Tuesday, NFA was 2 minutes, 23 seconds from another round of penalty kicks — or two rounds as Friday's matchup with the Vikings neccessitated — when Newbury struck on an assist from Kate Carleson on the right side.
"We've had some long games we've had to battle out," Baron said. "But it's going to make us better. ... I couldn't be happier. I told them, 'Keep your heads up.' People keep telling me you've got to look to the future with this team and I tell them I've got to look at what's going on right now."
The game-winning play was set into motion on a corner kick from the left side by Cassie Carleson. Carleson tapped a short corner to Alexis Price, who then sent it back to Carleson. Cassie Carleson's crossing attempt was too strong, but her twin sister Kate was waiting on the opposite side of the field to knock the ball back in front of the goal, where Newbury was waiting.
The Panthers (16-2) attempted several corners previously only to have them broken up by NFA goalie Allyson Knorr-Anderson.
"From the beginning of the game, it seemed like neither team wanted to score," Plainfield coach Jon Zielinski said. "Both teams had great opportunities and great goalkeeping. ... I can't wait to to go back (to the championship game)."
Plainfield was also the top seed in last year's tournament before running into East Lyme and the ECC's all-time single-season scoring leader in Stephanie deLaforcade. East Lyme won that game 3-0.
"East Lyme was a different animal last year. We were happy to be there," Zielinski said. "This year, I feel like there's no clear cut favorite in the ECC. This year they're a little used to being under the lights."
NFA had several opportunities early on created by its speed: think a 100-yard dash with a soccer ball.
Juliette Hogan sent a ball just wide to the left in the second half on a pass from freshman Kayla Park, one which Baron tried his best to motion into the net. About midway through the second half, Hogan hit a grounder that skipped just to the right.
Plainfield, however, which has a few members of its team that double as track stars, as well, including the Carlesons, caught up with NFA somewhat in the second half and manufactured more opportunities of its own.
"We're used to being the speedy team," Zielinski said. "It took us a little bit to get used to the turf. They've got some experience on that. It took a while to realize that we can't always chase people down."
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