LEOMINSTER, Mass. – The playoffs have been one long road trip for Canton (14-4-4), which has logged more than 700 miles this postseason, but the No. 21 seed had managed to overcome the logistical challenges and make an improbable run to its first-ever state title game.
After a dramatic shootout win over the top seed in the semifinal, the Bulldogs carried momentum into Saturday afternoon’s Div. 2 championship game at Leominster’s Doyle Field, but a nervous start against 2013 state champ West Springfield proved too much to overcome. West Side scored twice in the first half and, despite a much better second 40 minutes from Canton, held on for a 2-0 victory.
“Hats off to West Springfield,” said Canton coach Danny Erickson. “I thought they played a great game today. They looked like they were composed from the starting whistle. I own the fact that we were a little nervous and the moment got us a little bit. That goes on the coach 100 percent. The kids were ready, which you can tell because once the game settled down I thought it was a really even game.”
Through the sting of Saturday’s defeat, Erickson was able to reflect on the remarkable run of four wins that got the Bulldogs to the final for the first time.
“Nothing but praise for the Canton Bulldogs,” he said. “I’m so proud of everything they did this year. What a run.”
The Terriers got off to a great start in the match. Just a little over a minute in, Garrett Daley cut in from the right side of the box and had a good look at goal, but his left-footed effort was tame and easily held by Canton keeper Giovanni Ruggeri.
Four minutes later, another nice move opened up the Canton defense, as Daley played the ball into center forward Lorcan Mitchell, who laid it off for Emery Sloat. Only pressure from Carson Eagles on his shoulder and Ruggeri being quick off his line prevented West Side from grabbing the early lead.
Midway through the half, West Springfield’s pressure and Canton’s hesitancy turned into the opening goal. A long throw from the left was allowed to bounce in the box. It was only partially cleared and Owen Hall pounced on the loose ball to knock it in, immediately racing to celebrate in front of the Canton fan section.
Canton finally fashioned a couple of half-chances from set pieces. Jake Mccabe, who has provided huge goals in both the quarterfinal and semifinal, had a 30-yard free kick saved, although it appeared to be going wide of the post. A few minutes later, Zach Dowling’s long free kick picked out McCabe in the box, but his header went over the bar.
With four minutes to go before the break, the lead was doubled. Another long throw, this time from Hall was directed to Daley, who rose up unchallenged on the edge of the six and flicked his header to the back post.
Erickson said, “They got two throw-in goals, which are goals and they deserved them, but once the game settled down I thought it was a really even game. We just didn’t execute early on in that half and I don’t think we were quite ready.”
The Bulldogs almost had an immediate reply, as Charlie McKinney, who hit the winning penalty in the shootout against East Longmeadow, made good progress down the left and skipped into the box, but his shot was charged down by the West Side back line.
Canton really needed an early goal in the second half to try and get back into the match. The Bulldogs came out of the intermission looking much more confident, with Zaza Franceour, Jacob Crugnale, and Erik Valdovinos providing energy up top and Dylan Baird, Caden Mirliani, and Brian Shea starting to win balls in the midfield.
The lynchpin for the Bulldogs this postseason has been McCabe and the Terriers made sure that he was well watched all match long.
Eight minutes after the break, McCabe’s corner was put into the mixer and West Side struggled to clear. The ball popped out to McKinney, who tried an overhead kick that the Terriers managed to block on the line. McCabe would wind up with a shot from a tight angle on the right but it was held by keeper Cathal Carney.
“We moved him around a little bit, but you’ve got to have him in dangerous places and only so many places to put him,” Erickson explained. “I was really proud of the way Jake played today. I thought the way we played in the second half and came out and competed really hard. We had the ball drop in the six and had we knocked that in then I think it would have been an interesting finish.”
While the game was more competitive in the second half, chances were harder to come by for both teams. Mitchell had a header just wide for West Side and then McCabe found a rare pocket of space 25 yards from goal and forced Carney into a save. The Terriers nearly put the game away in the 68th minute when Ruggeri came out to challenge Daley on the edge of the box, but the midfielder’s shot came back off the post.
Canton had one more chance to try and halve the deficit. In the 71st minute, McCabe had a free kick from about 20 yards and he forced Carney into a diving save down to his right. The rebound sat invitingly out in front of goal for a second but West Side was able to scramble it clear under pressure.
That could have made for a frantic finish, but West Side was able to see out the win and secure a second state title in the past nine years (the 2013 title was in Div. 1).
“When I looked at the remaining seeds, once we got to the final four, in all of soccer we were the only ones anywhere in that stratosphere,” Erickson said of his team making a run as the No. 21 seed. “Really proud of these guys stepping up when it was big time.
“Best memories I’ve had coaching and I’ve had a lot of good ones.”