WOODBURY — Nonnewaug’s Josh Cheatham scored early and the Chiefs held on for a 1-0 win over Lewis Mills in a storybook Class M boys soccer first-round state tournament pairing.
This year’s Berkshire League champion Chiefs, ranked third in the tournament at 15-1-1, were one of the few teams who could rival Lewis Mills’ decades-long dominance in the league.
But, partly because of their dominance and the perceived handicap of less regular-season competition in the mostly-small-school league come state tournament time, the Spartans switched to the mostly-large-school Central Connecticut Conference this year.
Despite Mills’ state championship two years ago, Class M and S history is crowded with champions in just the position the Spartans were in now, No. 30 at 5-9-3 in the CCC. The relentless “Cinderella formula” is, manage to qualify for the tournament in a big-school league, then roll through Class M or S.
So the Spartans, suffering through a hard-knock season against some of the best soccer teams in the state, came to Nonnewaug High School slightly optimistic Monday afternoon.
The Chiefs, despite their familiarity with the Spartans — and partly because of it — felt somewhat cheated.
“When you draw a first-round opponent from the CCC or FCIAC, you know that’s a battle-tested team,” Nonnewaug coach Toby Denman said.
“We have just four seniors,” said Mills coach Ben Kulas, who could have cited freshman goalkeeper Jaydin Langdin as an example of his team’s youth.
But the Chiefs have just five seniors on their own roster and senior Jim Parker is in the net for his first and only season.
Long-time BL soccer fans could feel right at home. Despite a couple of Nonnewaug corner kicks in the first 10 minutes, the Spartans dominated with signature passing excellence, including a charge in the 10th minute just headed off by a Nonnewaug defender.
A minute later, after a dangerous ball in the Spartan box rattled around for seconds, Nonnewaug star Cheatham left-footed it home from 10 yards out.
“It felt great to get the goal,” said Cheatham, playing with a hamstring still dinged from a game against Litchfield three weeks ago. “I found the ball and got it in.”
Cheatham sat out for much of the rest of the game. Now it was up to Parker and his defense to hold the lead.
They were up to the task. Mills dominated for the next 20 minutes, but rarely got close enough for a good shot or sent it over the net when they did.
Parker gave “major credit” to his backfield, but played himself like a seasoned veteran.
“I know the kind of athlete he is,” said Denman, who also coached him in baseball. “He plays left field and he’s not afraid to hit the ground (diving for fly balls and deciding when to do so).”
“We don’t need 10 touches,” Kulas hollered to his attackers, possessing the ball for most of the half without much penetration.
Seven minutes from the half, the Chiefs made another foray into Mills territory. Freshman Brett Davino popped open for a hard shot from the 20. Langdin batted it, then recovered.
Mills came out more aggressively in the second half — a shot by Sam DiSorbo an inch wide in the first minute; another to Parker in the ninth; a flurry in the box in the 17th; and a near miss by Scott Groleau two minutes later.
But, in basketball terms, the Spartans’ dominance forced them into a half-court offense while the Chiefs blitzed fast breaks just as dangerous or more.
A minute from the final horn, both sides recapped the game. With the teams massed near the Nonnewaug goal, Nonnewaug freshman Andrew Greene kicked the ball out to Zach Baker, racing up the right sideline for two point blank shots off Spartan defenders.
Seconds later, Parker made the best and final play of the game, racing out for a ball a foot away from DiSorbo, just outside the box. The reunion was over.
Nonnewaug hosts No. 19 Plainville (10-6-1), another CCC opponent, Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m.