MIDDLETOWN >> The Branford boys soccer team entered unchartered territory in the Class L state tournament on Saturday afternoon. The Hornets were trailing.
Avon’s Riley Strassner broke a scoreless tie in the second half and Branford faced its first deficit of the tournament. But Aaron Radulski scored the equalizer exactly 7 minutes later.
Branford never did get off another legitimate shot attempt on Avon — and that included two overtime periods. But the 17th-seeded Hornets are still bringing home championship hardware, a Class L co-championship with Avon as the two teams played to a 1-1 tie at Middletown High.
“I had no doubt in my mind. The whole tournament was going our way. It was a great shot by Aaron. I was expecting it,” senior Max Condon said.
It is the first state championship for the Hornets (13-6-3) in their first appearance.
“I feel fabulous for the kids,” Branford coach Paul Hunter said. “To win a state championship, that’s why I got into coaching at the high school level. I know what it feels like (to win a state championship, Staples 1971-72) and I wanted the kids to have the opportunity to get that feeling, to find out what that exhilaration is all about. … It raises the bar and sends a message to kids in town that maybe soccer is the place to be.”
It’s the eighth title for No. 11 seed Avon (16-1-4), which won its first seven outright, but had lost to the eventual champion in each of the past six seasons.
“Coming off the field, they were crushed,” Avon coach Dave Zlatin said. “But I was trying to be positive with them, that it’s still a state title. By the time they were posing for the pictures, I think it had begun to sink in.”
Hunter, Condon and Zlatin felt the Hornets had better offensive possession against Avon than they did in the semifinals against Barlow, a 1-0 win. Branford was able to move the ball into Avon territory in the second half and overtime. But the Hornets were just not able to put together enough passes to get a clean shot off from within striking distance after Radulski’s goal with 21:44 left in regulation.
Branford’s defense has been the story of this entire tournament run and was again on Saturday. Avon peppered Branford for 28 shots and 11 corner kicks. Defenders, like John Tratnyek did in the second overtime period, made saves to keep the game tied.
“In almost every tournament game we’ve been in, they had more shots than us,” Radulski said. “We are a team that comes up really clutch when we need it. … We just know how to win. When it works that way, it’s great.”
Goalkeeper Nick Cordero came up with 11 big saves for the Hornets. The one he couldn’t come up with was Strassner’s goal on a tough angle — the ball just got into the corner of the net from close to a 90 degree angle with the near post — in the 52nd minute.
Radulski’s answer was a line drive that was perfectly placed underneath the crossbar and over the leaping Avon goalkeeper, Dan Magrini, on his only chance to make a save in the game.
“I saw the goalie come out a couple of feet. I was just trying to get it over him and under the crossbar,” Radulski said.
The co-championship concludes an improbable run by the Hornets, who pulled three seeded road upsets before facing Barlow. It was also the first championship for a Southern Connecticut Conference team since Guilford won in 2000.
“Nobody hung their heads (following Avon’s goal). We knew we still had time to do something about this,” Hunter said. “For the kids to sit there and dig in even deeper and respond the way they did, to put a ball into the back of the net, I thought it showed what kind of character they have as individuals and as a team.”
The match also provided the Falcons some redemption after losing in the final in both 2011 and 2012.
“We had more possession, more shots, but we didn’t put them away. I guess that’s why we are co-champions,” Strassner said.
Branford 1, Avon 1
Branford 0 1 0 0 — 1
Avon 0 1 0 0 — 1
Second half—Avon: Riley Strassner 51:16; BR: Aaron Radulski 58:16;
Shots—BR: 2; Avon: 28;
Saves—BR: Nick Cordero 11; Avon: Dan Magrini 0;
Records—Branford 13-6-3; Avon 16-1-4