Sophomore Louis Gazo turned into an opportunistic goal scorer.
His older brother, senior goalkeeper Leland Gazo, refused to yield the equalizer.
And their father, coach Matt Gazo, pulled all the right strings for the Rice Memorial High School boys soccer team in Saturday’s Division I state championship game.
The result: One year after winning the Division II title, the Green Knights found themselves atop Division I.
Louis Gazo popped in two goals, each off the team’s trademark set pieces, Leland Gazo turned back seven shots to thwart Champlain Valley’s second-half surge, and the No. 3 Green Knights pulled off a rare back-to-back title run with a 2-0 victory over the top-seeded Redhawks at Buck Hard Field.
“The relationship with my kids, I’m the coach on the field and the minute we walk off it, I’m their dad. We’ve developed this strange relationship of coach and dad,” Matt Gazo said.
“That was a big feat,” he added. “Our goal this year was to be in the top five to give us a chance further down the line in the playoffs. To have it materialize is huge.”
Banking on the team’s size and athleticism, Rice mapped out a clear strategy to counter CVU’s possession: Man-marking Cooper O’Connell, the Redhawks’ leading goal scorer, and creating chances off free kicks.
“We did what we had to do. It was day of nerves and it wasn’t pretty for most of it, but our game plan was executing set pieces and closing down Cooper O’Connell,” Matt Gazo said. “If we did those two things, we thought we had the better chance to win — and that’s what we did today.”
The Green Knights (16-2) also took a risky approach in the game’s first 15 minutes — one that paid off with Louis Gazo’s opening tally.
After CVU (16-2) earned 1-0 wins in the first three rounds of the playoffs, Rice opted to play high, forcing early pressure that yielded a throw-in opportunity deep in CVU’s defensive third.
Evan Rouleau launched the ball in the penalty area, where Sam Dickin flicked onto goal for Gazo to redirect past CVU goalie Aidan Johnson (one save) in the 13th minute.
“A lot of the talk this week has been about pressing to score first, so we pushed our outside midfielders high on their outside backs and it was basically 4 on 4 on their end for the first 15 minutes,” Matt Gazo said. “It created some problems and it led to a set piece and a goal.”
Reaching the final by only scoring on set pieces in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Rice’s game plan for Saturday was no secret.
“We knew we couldn’t give up set pieces or throw-ins. We literally worked on that in practice,” CVU coach Katie Mack said. “We talked about the importance of not letting it get to that. In the defensive third, if it’s going to go out, it needs to go out and up to prevent that.”
CVU adjusted in the second half — O’Connell dropped back in midfield; Todd Boisjoli moved up — and began to counter with long, promising runs, begging for an equalizer.
In the 60th minute, Joe Parento galloped through the Rice defense and dumped a pass into the 18-yard box for Nate Coffin, whose right-footed shot was handled well by Leland Gazo.
Five minutes later, CVU pouring forward with numbers again, Will Yakubik laid off a ball to Owen McCuin on the left side of the box. McCuin unloaded a left-footed rocket that clanked off the left post; the rebound collected by Gazo off a defender’s header.
“I thought that was definitely going in. I was about as close as I could get to that one,” Leland Gazo said. “I thought it was either in or off the post, luckily the latter of the two.”
McCuin had another chance in the 70th minute but couldn’t close down Adam Hamilton’s deflected shot before Gazo raced out to pounce on the ball.
“We made some personnel switches but I think it was a little too late and things didn’t fall our way,” Mack said. “When you have a really good keeper like that, you have to have more than six or seven shots in a game.”
With CVU unable to find the tying tally, Rice put the game away in familiar fashion: On a restart.
Rice gained a free kick near the end line, about 10 yards in front of the corner. Brent McKeown lofted a cross to the far post and Hayden Kjelleran headed back across for Gazo, who struck high but underneath the bar for the 2-0 edge with 6:52 to play.
“We know what to do when we are in front of net,” Dickin said.
Matt Gazo: “I would guarantee you we rehearse set pieces more than anybody.”
And it put Mack and her Redhawks into the offseason short of the program’s ultimate goal.
“It’s unfortunate and disappointing not to be on the other end of this one, but I’m proud of our entire team,” Mack said. “What’s great about soccer is there is next season.”
For the Green Knights, the encore to 2014 was sublime. They scored 75 goals, bettering last year’s record total. They finished on a 14-game winning streak. And they navigated their first D-I tournament for the program’s fourth crown.
“Oh, it feels so much better than last year. I wish we were here last year,” Louis Gazo said. “It’s D-I, it’s CVU and you know you are playing with the best players in the state.”
And the South Burlington program, still tied to the Lake Division, sent a message to Metro foes.
“CVU calls themselves ‘Soccer Central’ so it’s always good to go and take down ‘Soccer Central,'” Leland Gazo said. “Maybe we’ll have to come up with a name for ourselves now.”