BRANFORD >> In 2013, the Branford girls soccer team made its first trip to the Class L state championship game.
Almost one year to the day, Branford will be in another Class L state soccer final — except this time, it will be the boys making their championship game debut. The Hornets will square off against Avon on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Middletown High.
“We have a core of seven or eight seniors who have been playing together since we were 8 or 9 years old,” senior co-captain Mike Caminear said. “That chemistry factor helps. This marks the end of an era.”
While the Branford girls may not have surprised anyone in reaching last year’s final against Guilford — the Hornets were seeded third — the boys’ tournament run was unexpected. The Hornets finished the regular season 9-5-2 and lost in the quarterfinals of the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament.
As a result, Branford (13-6-2) is the 17th seed and didn’t play a single match at home during this Class L tournament run. But the Hornets pulled seeded upsets over Notre Dame-West Haven, University/Prince Tech and East Lyme in the first three rounds. Although Branford was a higher seed than Barlow (21st), the Falcons created more scoring opportunities in Tuesday’s semifinal, but couldn’t score against the Hornets.
“We had a conversation with the boys after we played seven games,” Branford coach Paul Hunter said. “We were 3-4, and out of those four losses, three were 2-1. I told the boys, ‘You haven’t learned how to win yet. You don’t how to win these types of games and we have to learn how to do that.’ You do anything and everything to win those games. The desire and determination, everything that is involved in winning a game, you have to take care of those things. We started to see glimpses when we won some of those types of games or tied them.”
Said Avon coach David Zlatin, who watched the game against Barlow: “Branford was very organized defensively. I saw them play earlier this year (against Hand). That position change they made, moving (Gobari Idamkue) to sweeper, has made a big difference. And they generated enough offense to keep Barlow occupied.”
Caminear was the team’s sweeper during the regular season and moved to right back — a position he had played for most of his youth.
“I’m very comfortable in that position,” Caminear said. “Gobari, he is rock solid, so steady that he is able to run our defense solidly.”
Avon (16-1-3) scored even earlier in its semifinal-round victory than Branford’s Max Condon (team-high 20 goals) did against Barlow. Matt Fuge scored 2:05 into the match and the Falcons’ defense was able to keep South Windsor off the scoreboard for its 14th shutout of the season — the same number Barlow had entering its game against Branford.
Avon is making its third trip to the final in the past four years and 15th overall (7-7). Avon has lost to the eventual Class L state champion in each of the last six seasons.
“That’s how we look at it. If you beat us, you are a quality team,” Zlatin said. “We had five guys play in that final (in 2012). …We are going to rely on that experience to hopefully settle us down (on Saturday) quicker than they do.”
Hunter has been to a final before as a player. He was a starter for Staples when the Wreckers won consecutive Class L championships in 1971-72. Staples reached the Class L final every year from 1967-73, winning five and earning a co-championship in another.
Hunter, 59, went on to play for UConn and professionally, including time in the North American Soccer League. Hunter played for the New York Cosmos with Pele during the superstar’s final season.
“We try to tell them it doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s all about winning at this point and time,” Hunter said. “The game against Barlow proved that. We were defending probably 80 percent of the game, if not more, yet found a way through their determination and mental toughness to keep Barlow out of the net.”
Branford is relishing the opportunity to raise its first state championship banner.
“This game on Saturday, in effect, is not about who is the better team,” Hunter said. “It’s about who wants to win more.”
CLASS L STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 11 AVON vs. No. 17 BRANFORD
• When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
• Where: Middletown High
• Records: Avon 16-1-3; Branford 13-6-2
• Internet: NFHSNetwork.com
• Championship game appearances: Avon is 7-7, last appearing in 2012. This is Branford’s first appearance in a state final.
• What to look for: Branford has clearly benefited after moving Gobari Idamkue to sweeper at the start of the tournament. He has been the anchor of a defense which has bent (three goals allowed in four tournament games) without breaking. Max Condon is the go-to player for the Hornets, leading the way with 20 goals. Like Condon did against Barlow, Matt Fuge scored early for Avon against South Windsor and the Falcons’ defense did the rest, posting their 14th shutout of the season. The first goal scored is really going to be pivotal here.
• You should know: Avon has lost to the eventual Class L state champion in each of the last six seasons. The Falcons also snapped Suffield’s state-record 43-game winning streak earlier this season.