By KEN MORSE
The Plainville boys soccer team has been causing quite a ruckus in the Class M state tournament over the years reaching the semifinals in 2011 and 2013 and three straight quarterfinal trips 2014-2016.
Most of the journeys began as a lower to mid-seed but the Blue Devils have played their best when the lights burned the brightest compiling a 20-10 mark in state tournament play over the past 10 years under head coach Tim Brown.
Last Sunday at Veterans Stadium in New Britain, the 23rd ranked 12-7-1 Blue Devils laid claim to their first ever-state championship in a 1-0 thriller over the first-ranked 20-0 Ellington Knights.
“This has been a gradual thing for us,” said Brown. “We kept knocking at the door and coming back every year getting better and better. This is a nine month commitment and takes a huge demand of time and effort. This was our goal since day one, a lofty goal but it has always been our goal and these kids did it.”
Senior James Raucci was in the right place at the right time unloading the game winning goal out in front with 11:50 to play in the second half for the only tally of the game.
“I was on the far wing and got past my guy and Patrick (Gryczewski) got it over to me and I was able to get it to the back of the net,” said Raucci. “When it went in it was just an incredible feeling.”
Plainville came into the showdown for the state title with a history against Ellington having lost three times to the Knights getting knocked out in the first round in 2009, dropping a second round game in 2010, and getting bounced from the quarterfinals in 2016.
Ellington, a five-time state champion and five time runner-up came in undefeated allowing just seven goals in 20 games, registering 15 shutouts along the way. Plainville didn’t beat just anybody to get to the title game they first had to get by Montville 4-1, a 2010 state champion and 2011-2012 semifinalists.
They got past second ranked 17-1 Granby 2-1 (5-4 PKs) in the quarterfinals, a team that was a semifinalist in 2016-2017, and a five time state champion. Then came a victory over third ranked 18-1 Stonington 2-1, a two-time state champion and two- time runner-up.
“We beat the number, three, two and one,” said senior goal keeper Sergio Zaldivar. “Since the beginning of the season, this has been our goal to be state champions and here we are. We had a lot of alumni come back to help us to reach this goal. My God, this is such a great achievement.”
The Blue Devils came out and totally dominated the first half of play, outshooting the Knights by an 8-1 margin. Seniors Dane Stephens and Michael Torres teamed up with junior Logan Miller taking the ball inside the box on numerous occasions.
Sophomores Tanner Rau and Patrick Gryczewski manned the outside sidelines with senior Tyler Miller and sophomore Tucker Rau closing off the middle of the midfield. Ellington had trouble maintaining possession past midfield as the swarming Blue Devils took away every opportunity.
When the Knights did manage to set up shop in the Blue Devils end, the defensive backfield unit of senior John Siani and juniors Brady Beausoleil and Jens Wadehn were aggressive to the ball stopping the attack in front of goalie Zaldivar (three saves).
At the 20 minute mark of the first half, Ellington threatened when they lined up for a direct kick near the sidelines from 20 yards out. Gryczewski was part of the wall that was set up and after a deflection took control of the ball and raced 40 yards down field managing to get past three defenders along the way maintaining possession after each collision.
It was that kind of determination that led to the Blue Devils dominating play. Tyler Miller came within inches of breaking the scoreless battle as he charged into the box with ten minutes remaining in the first half.
It took a fist full of jersey defense by Ellington to hold Miller back long enough as the shot skidded wide of the post. The teams headed for the sidelines at the half in a scoreless tie, but the Blue Devils already had given the indication that they were there for the long haul.
Stephens took several advances deep into Ellington territory in the second half using his speed and physical presence to threaten the Knights goal. Mitch LaForge made 10 saves in the net for Ellington and the defense came up with several hard takedowns of Stephens.
With 11:50 to play, Stephens charged in and drew a crowd of defenders. He dished it off to Gryczewski, who was racing in at the post. At the last second before the defense converged on the play, Gryczewski saw Raucci get some separation from his defender out in front and the lead pass was right on his kicking leg.
Raucci wound up and sent a line drive towards the post as LaForge made a desperate dive; but the ball found a way past him settling into the back of the net for the eventual game winner.
Raucci raced down the sidelines to the Blue Devils bench with his teammates, giving chase as the Plainville fans exploded in cheers from the stands. Now, it would be left in the hands of the defense to bring this game home with the first ever state championship trophy for Plainville.
There were more than a few anxious moments as the final minutes ticked off the clock. But with 43 seconds left, Tucker Rau broke up a play in the box and Zaldivar fell on the loose ball. The countdown to a state title had begun—and moments later the Blue Devils were in full celebration mode laying claim to the state title.
“We beat the number one, two and three team, so there is no question as to who the better team is in Class M,” said Brown, right before he received the celebratory ice bucket shower courtesy on his team.
“Sergio is the soul of this team. He’s the most spiritual and passionate player. He goes to the JV games to help out the younger goal keepers. I never told him to do that he does that on his own because he is so passionate about this soccer program. It’s that kind of commitment as to the reason why we are here today.”
It may be back to the drawing board next season for head coach Tim Brown as he will be losing seniors Zaldivar, Raucci, Stephens, Torres, Siani and Tyler Miller along with Zachary Santini, Brendan Sauvron, and Tim McCrorey who were instrumental in the Blue Devils title run in 2018.