The Division I high school championship game had reached the hour mark. Rice had the 1-0 edge, but Champlain Valley, desperate for an equalizer, started to press forward, finding connections in the middle of the pitch.
So when CVU defender Joe Parento began his dash, ball at his feet, through the heart of Rice’s midfield, Green Knights goalkeeper Leland Gazo scanned his team’s shape. The quick assessment: Rice was in trouble.
“I could see that we had even numbers, which is never good. You always want to be plus-one,” Gazo said. “I knew it was going to be something that wasn’t in our favor, so I was just trying to organize our defense and get them in a good cover position and move our defensive line to create a stop.”
But a quick wall pass sprung loose Nate Coffin behind the Rice defense, deep into the 18 and a few yards to the right of goal.
Gazo, though, shifted to his left and smothered Coffin’s right-footed blast, pushing the shot over the end line for a corner kick. Gazo and Rice caught a break minutes later when a CVU shot ricocheted off the post before an insurance tally sealed the Green Knights’ finals victory.
“It’s the big save in that moment. It was probably the biggest save of the year,” said Rice coach Matt Gazo, Leland’s father. “If they scored, that game changes. I don’t know if we win if they scored there.”
After backstopping Rice’s Division II title run in 2014, senior Leland Gazo turned in an encore performance this fall in D-I, with unmatched technique and leadership in net, to earn a rare accolade for a goalie: the Free Press’ boys soccer player of the year.
“As an opposing coach, Rice having him in net was just something you had to worry about,” said Essex coach Jake Orr, whose Hornets lost twice to Rice this season, including in the quarterfinals. “They had a very good team, they were tough to get scoring chances on and then knowing you had to have an A-plus finish to beat their goalkeeper just made it that much harder to beat them.”
Gazo yielded 11 goals in 18 games as Rice blanked six opponents in a 16-2 season that concluded with the 2-0 triumph over top-seeded CVU at Buck Hard Field on Oct. 31. Over the last two seasons, the Gazo-led Green Knights went 33-3 with two division titles.
While Gazo’s goalkeeping abilities have drawn the attention of college coaches, his intangibles as a captain and skills as an on-field organizer set him apart.
“He’s always been a very good leader, people have looked up to him. From the goal, you can really lead the team better than anywhere on the field because of your position on the field,” Matt Gazo said. “It’s the quarterback, it’s the catcher. You lead from the deepest position on the field.”
“That was probably one of the things that drew him to that position.”
Another reason? His father.
Matt Gazo, a 1988 Rice graduate, holds the program record for career goals. The Gazo backyard serves as the backdrop for daily lessons for the Gazo sons, Leland and Louis, the sophomore who knocked in both of the Green Knights’ goals in the title game.
Perhaps years of enduring rocket shots off the foot of his father molded Leland Gazo into a goalkeeper?
“I needed somebody to pick the ball out of the back of the net, so I didn’t have to do it,” Matt Gazo said. “Then he probably thought, instead of collecting them in the back of the net, he could save them.”
Leland Gazo: “I remember throwing myself at the ball, not really knowing what I was doing.”
But it has led Leland Gazo, who has experience as a field player, to find success in goal.
And it’s those little things before a save is needed — organizing the back line and midfield, getting in position to eliminate a shot — that made Gazo an impact player, sometimes without touching the ball.
“It’s the stuff that goes unnoticed by the average eye,” Matt Gazo said.
Leland Gazo’s contributions also extended on free kicks, sharing responsibilities with center back Evan Rouleau on Rice’s long-range set-piece chances. Gazo earned three assists on his restarts for a Rice team that tallied a program-record 75 goals.
“You can have a great band or orchestra in front of you, but the guy in front, the director, if he’s not directing it properly, then things go astray quickly,” Matt Gazo said. “He’s the band leader and he does a great job with it.”
Matt Gazo also credited Lou Stazi, an independent goalie coach, in Leland Gazo’s all-around development. His son’s work ethic gave him an edge, too.
“When you talk about working on his craft, there is no one in our program who works as hard as him, during the season and in the offseason,” Matt Gazo said. “I think that’s why he is the player that he is. He puts in more time than anybody.”
And in the matchup with CVU on Championship Saturday, Leland Gazo displayed his vision and technique to make the game’s biggest save.
“I attribute a lot of that to my play in the field, knowing how things are going to happen and be able to predict, so I don’t have to be a reactionary goalkeeper. I can be one that sees things,” Gazo said. “When you look at the biggest goalkeepers in the game, they aren’t necessarily waiting for the shot, they know and they can sense that’s going to be a play that was going to develop.
“Either way, I think I had it covered.”