A game that was as much about two players who weren’t there was a reminder that soccer can be an unfair, cruel sport sometimes.
Had Jason Cruz been at Middletown High School’s Faller Field Thursday instead of Stony Brook University Hospital with a broken left leg, he surely would have been crushed by what he had seen, but at the same time extraordinarily proud of his teammates.
Greenport, playing in its first regional final since 2005, was in control of the Class C match, dominating possession and pressing the stubborn S.S. Seward defense relentlessly. The Porters had some close chances, too. One had to wonder, how much pressure could Seward absorb?
A heck of a lot, as it turned out.
Seward held on to take the game beyond regulation time and triumphed, 1-0, when senior Matt Stam knocked in the goal 2 minutes and 56 seconds into sudden-victory overtime. Then Stam raced around the field in a personal victory lap while his happy teammates chased after him.
The devastated Porters, meanwhile, collapsed on the field in disappointment while Greenport coaches trotted out to console them. Greenport held a 27-6 shots advantage, earned seven of the game’s eight corner kicks and had a season-ending loss to show for it.
Seward (10-7-1) will return to Middletown Nov. 10 for a state semifinal.
“I never expected that,” Greenport senior forward William Chapeton said afterward. “We dominated the whole game. We had the possession. We had the shots.”
They didn’t have Cruz, though. The senior midfielder broke his leg in a grisly collision during Greenport’s 5-1 regional semifinal win over Solomon Schechter. But Cruz had a presence in the regional final in more ways than one.
On their way to Middletown, the Porters’ bus stopped at the hospital to visit their fallen teammate, who gave them a pep talk.
“He was saying we worked so hard and don’t let it end right here,” left back Jaxan Swann said. “He’s such a big [motivating] factor to us, and leaving that hospital brought tears to everybody’s eyes.”
Greenport coach Sean Charters, who spent four hours at the hospital with Cruz Wednesday, said: “I call him Mr. Greenport Soccer. He sets an example for everyone on the field.”
The Porters brought a tackling dummy dressed in a Greenport soccer T-shirt and shorts with Cruz’s No. 6 and propped it up against their bench in his honor.
Kevin Azama, a sophomore, took Cruz’s place in the starting lineup.
Seward was without one of its own, too. The Spartans played for center midfielder John Guerra, who was killed in a car accident July 23. He would have been a senior.
“It’s a hole we haven’t been able to fill,” said coach Bill Steele, whose team reached the regional final for a third straight year.
Charters said: “It was a highly emotional game. We wanted this for Jason, and they get the opportunity to do it for John.”
The Porters (12-7) played their third game in five days, but it didn’t show in their play. They brought plenty of energy and maintained it throughout.
“We always have energy,” said center midfielder Jacob Kahn.
Cheered on by a small but vocal group of Greenport fans who traded chants with the Seward supporters, the Porters came agonizingly close to a goal on several occasions. The closest came in the first half when a ball deflected off the chest of Seward’s Cam Panuska and off the right goalpost before Seward goalkeeper Jake Phillips (eight saves) collected it.
In the second half there were more chances: Chapeton drilled a hard shot right at Phillips. Azama met a cross with a first-time shot from close range that flew over the top; he fell to his knees in anguish. A cross/shot by Chapeton would have scored had not Phillips tipped it over the crossbar. Another shot by Chapeton took a funny deflection and Phillips was able to get to the ball before Greenport’s David Pineda.
The Porters had quite a season, winning their first county championship in 10 years. “All around, I think this is one of the better Greenport teams we’ve ever had,” said Charters.
The coach said: “I’m extremely proud of these guys. Jason would be so proud of these guys, of how we controlled the game, of how we gave ourselves the best opportunity to keep it going, and it’s tough that it has to end this way.”
In Cruz’s pregame remarks to his teammates back at the hospital, he evidently foresaw the possibility of defeat.
Chapeton said, “He told us even if we lost to keep our heads high.”
They sure can do that.
Photo caption: Greenport’s Kevin Azama, starting in place of the injured Jason Cruz, leads a charge upfield while S.S. Seward’s Dawson Schultz (11) and Jason Thom (2) chase him. (Credit: Bob Liepa)