MILFORD — Old Saybrook will play for a second straight CIAC Class S championship after Shon Ryan’s penalty kick 2:26 into the first overtime was the difference in a 4-3 victory over No. 9 Cromwell on Tuesday night.
The fifth-seeded Rams (16-3-4) held off a furious rally by the Panthers (12-6-3), who scored three times in the second half to erase deficits of 2-0 at halftime and 3-1 with 24 minutes left in regulation.
“It was a little frustrating to be up 3-1 and in the driver’s seat and let them back in the game,” Old Saybrook coach Sam Barnes said. “But we fought back. I thought we were the better team and it showed in the end.”
The Rams will defend their title Saturday against No. 3 Holy Cross after the Crusaders ousted No. 15 Immaculate on penalty kicks.
Cromwell coach Angelo Morello said he saw the game-changing play that resulted in the penalty as two players going shoulder to shoulder for the ball and Ryan losing his footing.
“We’ve been resilient all year long and we were just a little unlucky,” Morello said after seeing his team lose to the Rams for the third time this season. “They’re a good team and I can’t see either of the other two teams beating them in the final. It’s hard. These kids fought hard all year long. I just hate to see a game decided on a penalty.”
Saturday will mark Barnes’ final game in 25 years as head coach and 31 overall in the program, although this year’s march to the final has been all about his players — especially his 15 seniors, eight of which are starters.
“They talked about repeat right away (after beating Morgan 2-1 in the 2018 final),” Barnes said. “They struggled early on. I took on a pretty heavy schedule playing Newtown, East Lyme, Stonington, NFA. We scrimmaged Hand and Guilford. All big schools, so I tested them. I don’t think they understood it back then, but they found out today. We came prepared.”
For 100 minutes of physical, spirited and often testy soccer.
Old Saybrook took a 2-0 first-half lead on goals from Gannon Elfinger, a junior forward, and senior Colin Shulmeister.
The Rams dominated the first 40 minutes, allowing only one Cromwell shot and locking up their leading scorer, Anthony Caracoglia. The second half was decidedly different after Morello switched things up to create more space in the midfield.
Just eight minutes in, a freed-up Caracoglia took a cross pass and sent a hard shot off his left foot inside the far post to cut Cromwell’s deficit to 2-1. It was his first shot on net and came 52 seconds after Morello received a yellow card for arguing a no-call — one of several yellows handed out Tuesday.
“We’ve showed resilience all year long,” Morello said. “We had to open things up, obviously. They were really keying on Anthony and we went back to a 4-4-2, and it opened up space in the middle. And I think moving (sophomore) Logan Fox into center-mid really helped.”
Old Saybrook regained a two-goal advantage when Ryan’s corner kick was headed in by Shulmeister in the 57th minute. It was one of a handful of chances the two created off of Ryan’s corners.
“It’s a great connection that we have,” Ryan said. “We’ve been playing soccer together our whole lives. We know what we’re doing. He knows I’m always going to whip the ball in in-between the six and the penalty spot and corners. He’s got a great head, the best head on the team. He always gets those and I know he’s going to put them in.”
The Rams needed more than a third goal, however, because the Panthers kept the pressure on in the midfield. When Old Saybrook was called for a hand ball with 17:12 left in regulation, Caracoglia buried it for his 10th goal of the postseason and 32nd of 2019.
Four minutes later, Zach Randazzo tied the match at 3 when Caracoglia crossed the ball from the left side and he beat goalie Matt Rothman.
Ryan said his teammates were battling complacency with their leads of 2-0 and 3-1.
“I told them going into halftime we had to watch out. A few errors, unlucky calls, unlucky balls, they got in and scored,” he said. “We were all upset going into overtime, but I told them this is us, we’re the better team, just keep your heads up and it’s going to come.”
Now the Rams are one win from a second straight championship. Ryan shared the first with his brother, Paddy, who’s since graduated. Now he wants to win one with his 14 fellow seniors.
“We’ve been playing together our whole lives,” Ryan said. “The feeling we felt (winning the title) last year was like no other. We want to end our soccer years and our high school careers on something like that again, so it’s huge to play for that opportunity again.”