Ithaca High’s boys’ soccer team will remember Wednesday’s state playoff game with Arlington as the one that got away.
The Little Red went toe-to-toe with the top team in New York state — and the No. 4 team in the nation — for 80 minutes in the Class AA out-bracket clash at Wright National Fields. Not much separated the defending state-champion Admirals and the 14th-ranked Little Red.
And as it turned out, there was no tangible difference between the clubs during the run of play. The game came down to an early penalty kick, and Arlington made the most of that golden opportunity.
Team captain Eric Eastman converted the spot kick with 25:38 to play in the first half, after teammate Nick Moses was taken down in the penalty box, and the Admirals went on to beat the Little Red, 1-0, and advance to Saturday’s state quarterfinals. Arlington (19-0-2) will meet seventh-ranked Monroe-Woodbury (15-1-1) at a site to be announced.
The Little Red, which finishes its season 12-4, didn’t back down in the face of its biggest challenge of the season and threatened to tie the score several times in the second half, despite going against a strong wind.
“I definitely think we were a second-half team, and we definitely played better in the second half,” said midfielder Nicholas Gualtieri, one of only two senior starters for Ithaca, the other being keeper Geoffrey Twardokus. “This was probably the best team we played all season and we were just getting set, adjusting to that in the first half, but the second half we settled down and really had our good opportunities. We just couldn’t put them away.”
The Admirals — now unbeaten in 35 games dating back to early last season — had the better of the shots (19-7), although many of their shots were off the mark, and quality scoring chances were much closer to even. Twardokus made nine saves for Ithaca, while 6-foot-4 senior Joe DeRosa made five for the winners.
Twardokus said there wasn’t much he could do on the only one that got past him.
“It’s tough, these guys shoot hard and it’s 50-50 — actually maybe more like 80-20 for me,” he said of his chances at denying Eastman. “I did my best, took my best shot, made my best guess and unfortunately he went the other way. Nothing I could do.”
Twardokus dove to his left as Eastman buried a high blast just under the crossbar to the Ithaca keeper’s right.
One of Ithaca’s best chances came later in the first half, when junior Luc Sinon took a feed from his left, slid the ball right near the top of the 18-yard box and let fly. But the rangy DeRosa was right there to catch the rising blast.
Ithaca coach Gilbert Antoine said he’d scouted Arlington on the internet, and felt his team would have opportunites against the Admirals’ defense. Arlington was without its two top defenders, seniors Pat Mogan and Kevin Hoff, due to injuries. But DeRosa came up big, both figuratively and literally.
“They have a strong defense,” Antoine said, “but if it wasn’t for their goalie, they would have been out of the game. The goalie had some great saves.”
Arlington coach Craig Sanborn said that after about 20 minutes, his team went away from what was making it successful early.
“I thought we did a nice job of playing quick, moving the ball around and using the flanks,” he said. “For some reason, we got away from that, especially late in the first half. We started jamming the middle, and Ithaca did a much better job of getting numbers behind the ball and stuffing the middle.”
Ithaca won the pre-game coin toss and elected to take the wind in the first half, hoping to get an early goal and then play tough defense. It didn’t work out, giving Arlington the wind and the lead after the break. Sanborn again was disappointed in his team’s inability to capitalize.
“We didn’t attack the flanks and didn’t get in on them like we did in the first half,” he said. “I guess you’ve got to give some credit to Ithaca, because they kind of shut us down on that. But it’s a ‘W,’ and a ‘0’ on the scoreboard, and these guys know it’s all about defending (the state title).”
Antoine was adamant in his belief that his team was the equal, and in some ways superior, to the victors.
“They (Arlington) were frustrated that they couldn’t score, they couldn’t get in,” he said. “Technically, tactically, we’re a much better team. They have speed and strength, you could see it, they’re much bigger than my guys. But technically, they have nothing on us.”
Still, it was a season-ending loss for Ithaca, which returns most of the core of the team next season. The starting lineup featured two seniors, six juniors and three sophomores.
“This is still a very young team,” Antoine said, “and the majority of the team is back next year. The core will be back next year, so we’ll be in it.”