The fallout from losing to St. Johnsbury Academy a month ago was two-fold for the Champlain Valley Union High School boys soccer team.
There was the pride factor in giving up a season-high two goals. And then there were wholesale personnel changes that followed.
“When they came in and put two away on us, it woke us up right away,” CVU senior Joe Castano said. “It actually exposed some of our weaknesses and helped us out a little bit.”
The Redhawks’ thank-you note came in the form of a 1-0 victory over St. Johnsbury on Tuesday afternoon.
Castano struck early in the second half, the defense held its ground and the top-seeded Redhawks (16-1) edged No. 4 St. Johnsbury to advance to their third straight final, where they will meet No. 2 Colchester on Saturday at Burlington High School.
Showing poise in another postseason game, Castano knocked in his third goal in a semifinal in as many years. The senior also tallied the game-winner against Burlington in 2011.
“It was a crucial moment in the game,” said Castano of his goal with 32:10 left in regulation. “All credit to them, they are a fantastic team. It was the best competition we had all year.”
And it brought out the best in the re-tooled Redhawks.
“We changed where some guys were playing, had some injuries and players had to step up,” CVU coach TJ Mead said. “And we discovered new players because of that. That’s what a season is about — it comes in waves.
“We have guys who are starting and playing 80 minutes who didn’t play at all at the beginning of the year. And we have guys who were playing 80 minutes and are not playing at all,” Mead said.
Since the 2-1 defeat to SJA on Sept. 27, the Redhawks have run off nine straight wins while allowing just one goal. They have yielded five goals all season.
“Our motto the whole season has been: ‘we keep it at zero,'” Castano said.
Keep it at zero — and then find a way to score. The 1-0 semifinal result was CVU’s sixth such victory this season. Tuesday, it was Richard Baccei providing the scoring chance for Castano.
Working deep into the eighteen, Baccei cut back across toward goal and unleashed a right-footed blast that SJA goalkeeper Soloman Zaga knocked away. Castano slipped to his left and picked out the right corner before unloading a one-timed, rebound shot for the 1-0 lead.
“We just had to take advantage of our chances and today the finish was timely,” Mead said. “Then we knew we had a 30-minute onslaught that we had to deal with.”
With Marcos Tavares, Manuel Lugo, Ricardo Santandreu and Natzu Friebel applying pressure, the Hilltoppers tested CVU’s defense. Senior defender and co-captain Zack Evans broke up several chances and goalkeeper Brandon O’Connell (two saves) stood tall on a few others.
“We bent, but we didn’t break. At that point, (St. Johnsbury) had nothing to lose and they threw everything forward. We train for that and prepare for that,” Mead said. “I was really impressed with our guys and their decision-making.”
In the first minute of the second half, the Hilltoppers had their best chance go unfinished. Tavares sent a curving cross near the 6-yard box, where Friebel’s volley went over the cross bar.
“In a game like this, against a solid defensive team, if you don’t finish your chances that’s the game,” said SJA coach Stephen Levesque, whose squad was held scoreless for just the second time this season. “Credit to CVU for the shutout. That’s our game plan — go forward and score, and we had a couple bounces that didn’t go our way, we didn’t finish one in front of the net and that was it.”
Zaga finished with five saves for the Hilltoppers (13-3-1), who were attempting to reach their first final in program history.