MIDDLETOWN >> Tears flowed near the Middletown bench as darkness descended on Rosek-Skubel Stadium. The Blue Dragons girls soccer team’s remarkable two-year run was over: an ending that came, perhaps, a little sooner than anticipated.
Sophomore forward Ashley O’Neill scored two goals and junior goalie Hannah Caldwell made 11 saves as No. 23 Bunnell (8-5-4) upset No. 10 Middletown, 2-1, Monday in the first round of the CIAC Class L tournament.
Tied at 1, O’Neill scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute. The Blue Dragons, which outshot the Bulldogs, 26-10, did everything in their power to get the tying goal.
But it never came.
“They had a lot of people on defense and we tried to put some more pressure on them in the end,” said Blue Dragons senior sweeper Marissa Aldieri, who was moved to forward over the final 10 minutes.
“Soccer can be a frustrating game,” said Middletown coach Nick Libera. “The better team doesn’t always win and that was the case with this game.”
The Blue Dragons took a 1-0 lead in the 15th minute when sophomore Alex DeFrance lofted a 35-yard direct kick over Caldwell’s head.
Middletown’s leading scorer, senior forward Mikaela Coady, nearly gave the Blue Dragons a two-goal lead but she pushed a shot up front that rolled wide of the far post. Coady had a similar scoring opportunity after O’Neill scored the tying goal.
“I had a few chances in the beginning,” said Coady. “My hips weren’t turned and I just missed them by maybe a foot.”
O’Neill tied it in the 24th minute when Middletown failed to clear the ball and Alyssa Velez bumped a pass up front where O’Neill, who got behind the defense, slipped a one-on-one chance past senior goalie Desiree Hinton (eight saves).
“I was just in a good spot at the right time and the pass was right through the defenders,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill’s second goal came early in the second half. Freshman midfielder Emily Kratochwil won the ball on the right side and sent a high pass inside the penalty box where O’Neill outmaneuvered a defender and chipped the ball over Hinton’s head for a 2-1 advantage.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” said Libera. “Bunnell plays in a very tough (South West) conference. We jumped on them early and had a lot of opportunities to score. We just didn’t put a lot of them away so they were able to hang around and unfortunately that’s kind of what did us in.”
O’Neill’s sister, senior captain Kacie O’Neill, almost netted an insurance goal in the 62nd minute but she rifled a shot off the crossbar on a breakaway.
“I’m so proud of the team to hang in there and do what we needed to do to win this game,” said Bunnell coach Sebastian Wojdaszka. “Middletown has had a great season. They beat Glastonbury and anything other than an ‘A’ effort wasn’t going to cut it. At the end we were running out of gas a little bit but it was definitely a team effort.”
Middletown, which reached the Class LL quarterfinals a year ago (losing to New Milford in PKs) and was coming off a Central Connecticut Conference finals appearance a few days ago, finished 15-5.
“This year we had high expectations to try and make it past the quarterfinals,” said Libera, who has guided the Blue Dragons to a 30-6-1 mark in two seasons at the helm. “We felt like we really had a good chance. It’s tough to take a loss in the first round when we knew that this was one we could have had.”
“We had a fantastic season, one to remember” said Coady, who set a single season scoring mark. “It’s unfortunate it had to end so soon.”