CLASS B SEMIFINALS | ROYALS 1, TUCKERS 0
Two days. Time was against the Mattituck girls soccer team to devise a plan to disrupt one of the most potent offenses in the county.
After Saturday’s overtime thriller against McGann-Mercy, the Tuckers returned to the practice field Monday with the realization that the top-seeded Port Jefferson Royals awaited Wednesday afternoon.
In two regular season games, the Royals scored nine goals against the Tuckers. Something needed to change.
Mattituck coach Malynda Nichol went to work, implementing a formation change that focused the Tuckers more on the defensive end. Playing mostly with just one forward up top, the Tuckers hoped to disrupt the Royals’ midfield, and not allow the ball to easily find its way to Jillian Colucci, the Royals’ standout forward.
Through the first half and most of the second half of Wednesday’s Class B semifinal game in Port Jefferson, the strategy paid dividends. The Tuckers frustrated Port Jefferson in the midfield, relied on a packed-in defense and their goalkeeper Emma Fasolino.
“They rose to the occasion,” Nichol said.
But in soccer, all it takes is one strike to make the difference. As the teams entered the 67th minute with the game still scoreless, Port Jefferson freshman Grace Swords tracked down a ball in the right corner. Near the sideline, at what appeared an impossible angle for a shot, Swords lofted a crossing pass into the box.
Fasolino eyed the ball as it arched toward her, closer and closer to the goal. As she moved back toward the far post, the ball curved just inside the top corner of the goal and floated down into the net for a goal.
It was all the Royals needed in a 1-0 victory that ended the Tuckers’ season and sent Port Jefferson (13-2-2) into the county finals.
“I think her intentions were to cross it,” said Port Jefferson coach Allyson Wolff. “And we happened to get lucky.”
It was the eighth goal of the season for Swords and her 16th point.
It was an emotional end for Mattituck (9-6-2), a team that had to overcome several injuries throughout the season just to get to this point. As parents congratulated Nichol after the game for a successful season, she couldn’t help but fight back tears.
“They came out hard today and they took it to Port,” she said. “To lose 1-0 in the last 15 minutes is pretty impressive. I think if we had more time to work on the formation, I think we could have had a better outcome.”
The Tuckers accomplished at least one feat: they kept Colucci off the scoreboard for the first time this season. Colucci, a small, but quick and skilled sophomore, came into the game as the leading scorer in Suffolk. Her 24 goals were most in the county as well as her 36 points.
Coaches for both teams praised the effort of Mattituck senior Nikki Zurawski against Colucci.
“She did a fantastic job on No. 7,” Nichol said.
“They shut her down,” Wolff added.
The downside of shifting two forwards into the midfield is scoring chances are tougher to come by. For most of the game, the play was in the Mattituck end, although the Tuckers managed to limit many good scoring chances.
The Tuckers knew they would need to capitalize on one of the few chances they might get in the game. A few were there for them, perhaps the best one coming in the 53rd minute. A handball gave the Tuckers a direct kick right at the top of the 18. Zurawski took the kick, but boomed it high over the net. They had another chance on a much deeper free kick right before Port Jefferson’s goal. Zurawski sent the ball into the box, where senior Courtney Murphy nearly had a chance to make a play on the ball, but Port Jefferson’s goalkeeper covered up before she could.
After the game, Wolff admitted it was a different team the Royals saw compared to the regular season.
“They stepped up, they were hungry and they definitely wanted it,” she said. “They wanted to take out the No. 1 seed and you could definitely see it today.”
The Royals, who lost last year in the semifinals, feature a team with five freshmen and eight sophomores. There are no seniors on the team.
“They just bond so nicely,” Wolff said of the young squad. “When they step on the field, they just mesh.”
The Tuckers will say goodbye to six seniors. The younger players that will return next year give Nichol reason to be excited about the future.
“Last year we started playing year-round together and we’re going to continue that trend,” she said.
These teams may very well meet against next year in the playoffs.