MARLBORO, Mass. – As Canton junior Jake McCabe, who scored the lone goal for the Bulldogs in regulation and nearly won the game in extra time when his curling effort hit the post, walked back towards his team after seeing his penalty kick saved, shirt pulled up to cover his face, head coach Danny Erickson came to meet him halfway and told him emphatically not to worry because his teammates were going to pick him up.
Just seconds later, keeper Giovanni Ruggeri got down low to his right to instantly even things back up in the penalty shootout. After Zach Dowling fired a shot into the bottom left corner, Ruggeri, who had taken a knock to his leg in the final minutes of extra time and was limping going into PKs, lunged to his left and palmed away another penalty to put Canton on the brink.
Senior Charlie McKinney took the long walk for the fifth round, knowing that his kick could end Wednesday night’s Div. 2 state semifinal at Assabet Valley High’s Aztec Field and send the Bulldogs to their first title game in program history. He stepped up, finding the back of the net low to his left, and wheeled around in celebration after sealing Canton’s 1-1 (4-2 on PKs) victory over the top seed East Longmeadow.
Erickson said, “That’s what has to happen in those things, you’ve got to take care of your teammate. Jake took a good penalty and the kid made a great save and then Gio answered right away. You can’t say enough good things about them.”
“We’ve been practicing every day,” Ruggeri said after the game. “We though this day might come and it finally did and all of us showed up. It was a complete team effort. It was a great 100 minutes and it came down to pens. We stuck together as a team and it’s just a great team win overall.”
The Bulldogs came into the playoffs as the No. 21 seed and have logged nearly 600 miles through the first four rounds of the tournament. It was a long shot to even get this far and now Canton will get its first taste of the final.
“That game could’ve gone either way,” Erickson said. “We both had inches that made the difference. We just missed, they just missed, just a heck of a great game and a great team that we just faced. We played awesome and they represented Canton very well today. They never quit.”
Canton had the game’s first good chance when McKinney’s cross from the right wing gave Erik Valdovinos a chance to put Spartans keeper Ben Girioux under pressure. Three minutes later, the Spartans missed a chance on one end and on the other Valdovinos took a pass from Jacob Crugnale in the right channel and curled a shot just past the top far corner.
After Sonny Mazza teed up Ryan Brunelle for a gilt-edge chance in the 12th minute that the junior put just wide of the open net, the game settled down for a while.
Inside the final two minutes of the half, McCabe broke the deadlock. A long ball out of the back by Dowling was allowed to bounce. McCabe read it and was able to shrug aside the challenge from the East Longmeadow defender. Racing towards the box, he took an extra touch out to his right to get a better angle and then drilled a shot inside the far post to make it 1-0. It is his third straight game with a goal.
The lead only lasted five minutes after the break. Ruggeri made an easy save on a header off a free kick but then Sonny Mazza was able to get free down the left side of the box and played a perfect low cross to Luke Mazza for a tap in at the back post.
Rather than let their heads drop, Canton came charging back again. Caden Mirliani, Dylan Baird, and Brian Shea were shielding the back line well and getting the ball forward quickly. A ball over the top allowed Crugnale to run in behind the Spartans back line, but he missed the net when one-on-one with the keeper.
McCabe came close to restoring the lead in the 65th minute. His 25-yard free kick appeared to beat the keeper in the bottom corner but not the post, ricocheting out for a goal kick. Crugnale followed that with his own shot off the post just a minute later after a quick break freed him up on the left.
“They’re a driven group of guys,” Erickson explained. “A lot of teams would’ve come out in the second half and seen that goal go in and collapsed against the No. 1 seed. I thought the next 10 minutes after that goal, when we settled ourselves again, was the difference in the game. I think if we had conceded in that craziness, then it would’ve been a different result but we dealt with the hard times.”
There were chances on both ends of the field. East Longmeadow was finding spaces in front of the Canton back line and playing angled balls out to the wingers, who were slipping behind the wingbacks and getting runs into the box.
Brunelle missed the net with a couple of great chances. Ruggeri was forced into a great save, preventing Luke Mazza from finding the top corner. With seven minutes to go, Ryan Morneau smacked the post for the top seed.
Despite all the action in front of both goals, the game went to extra time. Four minutes in, McCabe nearly put the game to bed in spectacular fashion. He cut in from the left wing and drilled a shot from 20 yards that bent away from the keeper and seemed destined for the top corner only to hit the post for the second time. The rebound fell to Crugnale in the box but Enzo Mazza was able to block.
A beautiful cross to Colin Evans saw the East Longmeadow midfielder head just wide from close range and Valdovinos had another chance in the second extra time period when his run down the right got him into the box but he shot wide. Brunelle still had time for one more chance, slipping it past the slide of Ruggeri but Ashton Cetoute was on hand to clear it off the line.
In the end, only penalties could separate the teams and only through penalties could Canton keep its remarkable playoff run alive right to the final day.
“This was something these guys really wanted to accomplish,” Erickson said. “They’ve really been a team all year, they’ve worked together all year, they’ve gotten better all year.”
Ruggeri summed it up, “It feels fantastic, making history over here!”
Canton (14-4-4) will take on No. 6 seed West Springfield in the title game, after the Terriers, who beat Oliver Ames by a goal in the Round of 16, beat Longmeadow in penalties in the other semifinal. The game will be at Leominster High’s Doyle Field at 1:30 on Saturday.
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