EAST LONGMEADOW — One of the most thrilling high school soccer matches this season took place on Nov. 14 as the eighth-seeded Nauset boys played the top-seeded East Longmeadow Spartans in the Round of 8 in the Division 2 MIAA state tournament.
After two overtime periods ended in ties, the Spartans prevailed in a penalty-kick battle, 6 to 5.
Nauset Head Coach John McCully and his coaching staff were struck by the singularity of the match. “We’ve all played at different levels, college, semi-pro, pro,” McCully said. “We’ve never been in a game like that before. Never.”
Nauset star junior forward Nate Watring scored a hat trick in the first half to give the Warriors a 3-0 lead at halftime. The team looked poised to claim an upset victory and move on to the Division 2 Final Four.
But East Longmeadow did not quit. The Spartans scored two goals within eight minutes to make the score 3-2, and with just five minutes left, they tied it up, sending the game into a 10-minute sudden-death overtime.
Neither team scored in the first or second overtime periods. That meant penalty kicks would decide their fate.
The back-and-forth battle continued. One team scored; the other team scored. One team missed; the other team missed. Finally, with each team having netted five of eight shots, Nauset’s Caelan Donovan missed high on the ninth shot attempt.
That allowed East Longmeadow’s Aman Khurana to walk up and bury the Spartans’ ninth kick to win the game.
A sea of red jerseys flooded the field to celebrate what had seemed like an improbable outcome.
East Longmeadow Coach Dave Serafino said Nauset “pushed us literally to the brink of our season before we were able to prevail. I have been coaching for over 30 years, and this was an awesome display of courage from our boys.”
“The moment overwhelmed us a little bit,” McCully said. He called East Longmeadow “by far the best team we’ve played this season.”
All six goals scored during what was otherwise a defensive battle were impressive.
With about eight minutes left in the first half, Watring controlled a floating pass from fellow junior forward Arlo Lawless and faced off one-on-one with East Longmeadow defender Patrick Stevens just outside the penalty area. Watring, to the right of the goal, shot from a tough angle across his body. The ball stayed on the ground and slipped past Spartan goalkeeper Ben Giroux for the first goal of the game.
Later, with just under three minutes remaining in the half, Watring controlled a pass in front of the net and beat Giroux for his second goal.
Just a couple of minutes later, with Nauset up 2-0, junior midfielder Grayson Farber booted a corner kick into the goal area. Watring found himself at the top of the box and kicked a volley past Giroux for his third score.
Meanwhile, East Longmeadow had its fair share of chances that didn’t find the net.
McCully said the 3-0 halftime lead wasn’t a wholly accurate reflection of the dynamics of the game.
“Us being up 3-0 was very deceiving,” he said. “It could have just as easily been 3-3.”
At halftime, the team talked about how to protect its lead, McCully said. They knew they’d have to play with a great deal of composure, he said.
East Longmeadow came out in the second half playing more aggressive offense. The Spartans’ Ryan Morneau scored off a rebound after Nauset junior goalkeeper Chase Lemieux saved a would-be goal with 28 minutes left in the second half.
Then, with 21 minutes to go, East Longmeadow’s Sonny Mazza controlled a bouncing ball on the left side of the penalty box and fired a strike across his body that landed in the far side of the net. The score was now 3-2.
As the sky grew darker, it was looking like Nauset might come away with a win. Then, with five minutes left, East Longmeadow’s Colin Evans found himself in front of the net as a cross from Mike Monroe in the far corner came through. Evans stuck his leg out and with one touch directed the ball into the back of the net. Tie game. The fateful penalty kicks followed.
The Warriors finished the season 17-2-1 and will graduate eight seniors from this year’s team, including Will Schiffer, who was one of nine players named to the Eastern Mass. All-Region Team.
But a lot of young talent will return next year, including Watring, who led the team in goals this season. He tallied five goals and two assists in tournament play. Charlie Cushing, a sophomore midfielder, and Colton Higgins, a junior midfielder, will also look to get back on the pitch next season.
“We had a few injuries that hurt us,” McCully said. “Charlie Cushing was out; Colton Higgins wasn’t able to make it. We just didn’t have the depth to compete in the end.
“I’m just heartbroken for our seniors,” McCully said. “But we expect to be back next year fighting for a state championship. Our guys played with a tremendous amount of heart.”
East Longmeadow was scheduled to face Canton in the Final Four on Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 5 p.m.