Playing at soccer at Center Moriches is tough enough.
Playing the defending state champions without your top goalkeeper who has three-plus years of varsity experience is a recipe for disaster.
Yet, despite having only three minutes in goal and manning the position for the first time in five years, junior midfielder Oswald Cuellar acquitted himself well and helped keep Mattituck in what turned into a 2-1 loss in a non-league match on Monday night.
“I was nervous at first and I got used to it,” said Cuellar, who played in goal for the first time since he was in sixth grade. “Seeing the crowd, a big crowd, kind of scared me a little bit. I got used to it. I got confident. It’s a big team, state champions, as everyone knows.”
The Tuckers (3-3) learned that first hand. The last time these two teams met, Center Moriches recorded a 6-0 victory in the 2017 Suffolk County Class B championship game.
Monday night’s game was a complete reversal. Of course, the Red Devils (4-1) had lost something like half their starting lineup and 80 goals from last year’s team. But Center Moriches is Center Moriches and still can be a formidable side.
“We had walked into a couple of games against them last year when we were not up to the same level and they played us off the park,” Mattituck coach Will Hayes said. “Today we could come in here and it was pretty much snatch and grab with the losses that we had.”
Hayes was referring to midfielder Bryan Soto, who was serving a suspension for two yellow cards versus Babylon, and goalkeeper James Jacobs.
“We kept our shape,” Hayes said. “We knew that they were going to move the ball on us and we looked to mitigate that with tactical positioning and we did a good job. I’m really happy. With a little bit more coaching and a little more understanding of how exactly Center Moriches moves the ball, I’m confident we can come in here and some damage.”
“It basically tells us where we’re at,” said center back Bryce Grathwohl, who scored the lone Mattituck goal. “… Hopefully, we’ll see each other in the playoffs.”
It would only be natural because these teams have the longest-running rivalry in Suffolk soccer, having played each other at least once a year since 1937.
Cuellar played in place of Jacobs, a senior who had played every minute of every game since his first freshman year in 2015. Jacobs was red carded with three minutes remaining in the 2-0 loss to Babylon and was forced to sit out the game with a one-game suspension.
“We kind of tried out different goalkeepers and Oswald was the one we wanted to stick with and he acquitted himself really well,” Hayes said. “He acclimated himself to the game quickly and performed at a level you wouldn’t expect of a guy who’s cold off the bench and not really a goalkeeper.”
Hayes wasn’t the only one who walked away impressed.
“Oz was ridiculous,” Grathwohl said. “He kept us in the game. He made a couple of ridiculous saves. He basically was the backbone of our team today.”
Cuellar gave the Tuckers a unique attacking weapon with booming kicks from the back. He was able to kick the ball long distances, well past the midfield line.
“He was fabulous,” Center Moriches coach Chris O’Brien said. “I thought he did very well. I thought he made every key save he had to make. He distributed really well. He might have been one of their best offensive guys when they knocked the ball back to him. He was very dangerous.”
Oswald, however, wasn’t perfect as he couldn’t keep two balls out of the net as the Red Devils grabbed a 2-0 halftime advantage. First, Jack Wicks set up Matt Alifano’s header with 22 minutes and 25 seconds remaining in the first half. The hosts doubled their lead some five minutes later when Cuellar saved Tommy Luongo’s shot before Mike Bartholonew tapped in the rebound with 17:22 left.
Grathwohl sliced the lead in half with 18:52 to go in the second half, heading home Jack Burkhardt’s corner kick.
“It’s a great win. Any time you win it’s a great win,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know if we put a bow on this one. We’ll certainly remember that. We’re going to see these guys later on in a game where [loser] goes home. We certainly didn’t show our best. We’re hoping to get better as time goes on.”