HARVARD — It wasn’t exactly Hickory High vs. South Bend Central in terms of school size, but it was if you went by the history books. There was Bromfield, one of the if not the most storied soccer program of the last 25 years in Massachusetts and owner of eight state championships. On the other side was Ayer, the upstart program in just its 12th season of varsity play, in search of their first ever District play-off win.
If high school soccer fans were asked who was going to win this game, the decision would have been heavily if not unanimously in the Trojans favor. But there is a reason the games are played on the field. For 100 minutes, the teams locked horns in a physical, well-played scoreless tie as the Panthers gave everything they had. But in the end, Bromfield took care of business, claiming a 3-2 win on penalty kicks to advance on to the Central Mass. Division 3 quarterfinals.
“We went into the game with a plan that was really built to force their offense to get chances at tough angles,” said first year Ayer coach John Weeks. “Our goal was to funnel them to the sidelines and not allow anything to happen in the middle. I thought we executed that plan very well. The problem was, we didn’t get a lot of offensive push and our chances were extremely limited. But I can’t stress how proud I was of our team’s effort, especially on the defensive end.”
For Trojans coach Tom Hill, the positives in the game in his mind were few and far between.
“I think we just stood around too much and didn’t really play up to the level I was expecting,” said the veteran coach. “Give them (Ayer) credit, they played a smart game. But, we didn’t play smart at all. Our first touches were shaky and that kept us from really putting together any type of offensive tempo. We have to play much better if we expect to keep advancing.”
In the early going, Bromfield had a quantity of chances, but not quality, putting five shots on Panthers’ goalkeeper Ryan Madigan in the first 10 minutes. The shots though were from quite a distance out and were directly at Madigan, who easily turned away the attempts.
Just under 20 minutes into the game, the Trojans came up with their best opportunity of the first half. Off a long throw-in, Derek Silver out-jumped the Ayer defense and headed a shot towards the net from 10 yards out. The shot went just inches over the crossbar as the game remained scoreless.
The Panthers’ lone scoring threat came in the 29th minute and was the best threat either side had in the first 40 minutes. Maurice Bechara shook loose of a defender and found space just outside the top of the box. The senior forward let loose a low shot that skipped once and was saved by diving Bromfield goaltender Will Nocka as the game headed to the intermission at 0-0.
“As the first half wore on, I thought our effort got better and we were working harder to get chances,” said Hill. “Then we kind of slowed down the last 10 minutes of the first half and that carried over. I thought at some point we were going to step up, but we never really did.”
A wild scramble in the 49th minute almost broke the ice. Bromfield had an initial shot blocked from 20 yards out, but the rebound came to Silver, who fired a shot that hit off the side of Madigan. Another rebound came out to Silver, who lined a shot from 10 yards away that hit off the crossbar and was eventually cleared away as Ayer dodged a major bullet.
But the Ayer defense frustrated the Bromfield offense over the next 15 minutes, packing the middle and receiving outstanding all-around play from everyone, spear-headed by Ryan Goodman, Ian Morrison and Tim White, who did a great job of limiting the shots allowed on goal.
“Defensively, we knew it would take a total group effort to try to keep the game close,” said Weeks. “Everyone stepped up and contributed in some way, but Ryan Goodman, Ian Morrison, Tim White, Andrew Stiling and Dan Hughes led the charge. They were very aggressive and did an outstanding job of keeping the middle clear and not allowing any easy chances on net.”
Over the final 15 minutes, Bromfield had two chances to grab the lead, but were unable to convert. In the 66th minute, Issac Cohen had a header from 10 yards out that was turned away by Madigan. In the 74th minute, Andy Tabrizi sent a shot just wide of the right post. The final whistle of regulation came and after 80 minutes nothing was settled as the game headed to overtime.
Cohen had the best chance for the Trojans in the 84th minute, getting free at the top of the box and lining a shot just over the crossbar. It was Bromfield’s only real threat as the Panthers controlled the flow of play in the extra 20 minutes.
“We made a change in our strategy over the last 20 minutes and attempted to get more pressure offensively,” said Weeks. “It really worked out well and I thought we had a couple of good chances to win the game.”
Ayer’s best chance came with just minutes left in the overtime. Off a free kick from near midfield, Bechara sent a long ball towards the top of the box. Zak Keeley came away with the loose ball and fired a shot that went just wide of the right post. That was the last threat for either team as the game went to penalty kicks to decide a winner.
Bechara got things started for the Panthers by finding the back of the net while Brent Stoddard responded for the Trojans with a goal to knot it at one. A pair of misses opened the door for Bromfield and they responded, getting scores from Cohen and Silver to grab a 3-1 lead.
Morrison kept hope alive with a tally to draw Ayer within one at 3-2, which was followed by aTrojans’ miss. Ayer couldn’t convert its fifth shot as Bromfield survived, advancing into a match-up against third-seeded Littleton.
“Our penalty kicks were good, but I am upset that we let it get to that point,” said Hill. “We survived, which is the best thing I can say. I expect our effort and result to be better in the next round.”
For the Panthers, the shootout loss meant the end of an outstanding season.
“You never want to lose, but to go out by playing as well and as hard as we did against a great team like that is pretty great,” said Weeks. “There was so many good things that we did in this game. I am so proud of the effort of everyone. The hope is that the success of this season can be used as a stepping stone to the future advancement of this program.”