In a taut, well-played match, the No. 10 Simsbury High boys soccer team advanced past No. 23 Conard in the first round of the state Class LL tournament with a 1-0 (3-1 penalty kicks) victory in Simsbury on Friday evening.
Neither team scored in open play; the lone goal was credited to Simsbury for its victory in the penalty kick phase earned after 100 minutes (80 in regulation, 20 in double overtime) of scoreless soccer.
Simsbury goalie David McDonald was at the center of the dramatic shootout, as he stretched to make two brilliant saves on Conard’s first and fourth kicks, and he calmly netted Simsbury’s third kick when called upon by head coach Ed Lynch.
Conard, which had Joseph Schuman convert its second penalty kick, saw its third attempt sail over the crossbar of Simsbury's goal.
It was an exciting, if not unlikely, moment for McDonald, who had never played goalie in a penalty shootout in a competition before. What's more, McDonald had returned to playing soccer only this season after spending several years away from the game.
Still, despite all of that, the Trojans' senior keeper said that he wasn’t nervous when the shootout began, as he dove low to his right to save Conard’s first attempt on goal.
“I knew where [the Conard player] was going to kick it,” McDonald said. “I just felt it. I was pretty pumped when I got the save.”
Simsbury captains Kevin Zwick and Andrew Yanik preceded McDonald in burying their penalty chances, which were particularly satisfying moments after being denied all game by a stellar Neil Droney, Conard’s freshman goalkeeper.
Zwick alone was stopped twice at point blank range - in the 71st minute and again in the 74th minute - by a sprawled Droney.
“He had a tremendous game,” Conard head coach Adam Linker said of Droney. “He's the reason he kept us in it. He made five or six game-saving saves.”
When Droney wasn’t there to deny Simsbury - which held the ball in Conard’s defensive third for large swaths of the game - the woodwork was.
Trojans’ forward David Melanson saw his endeavor bound harmlessly off the post in the 53rd minute.
Credit also goes to Conard’s team defense, notably captain Schuman, Colin Wilkinson, Ronan Lucey and Daniel Gibson, for keeping an increasingly confident Trojans’ side off the board.
“We had a lot of opportunities in their half, we just got unlucky with them, we couldn’t finish,” said Simsbury co-captain Matthew Poomprakobsri. “There was a little concern about Conard, but our team is strong and I knew we’d push through it.”
Linker said that he was pleased with being able to keep Simsbury, a big, physical team, from getting second chances inside the Chieftains' 18.
“We did a good job of clearing things out," Linker said. "Joe Schuman does a great job back there. We gave up a lot of secondary goals this year. They’re a big, physical, athletic team that thrives on that type of play. We wanted to make sure that wasn’t how they were going to score their goals.”
When called upon, Simsbury’s defense - co-captain Andrew Yanik, Jeffrey Smith, Ryan Ahrens and Peter Bruno - also stepped in to keep the game scoreless.
Just one minute into the second half, Conard’s James Ames found the ball recycled to him inside Simsbury's 18, but he couldn’t connect as the Trojans cleared the Chieftains’ best scoring opportunity to that point.
“We’ve been playing together our whole lives,” Yanik said of the Trojans’ stifling defense. “We knew this day would come.”
The lack of scoring can also be attributed to the two teams’ familiarity with one another; both teams play in the same conference - the Central Connecticut Conference West - and they split their two regular-season matches, with Conard defeating Simsbury 3-2 on Sept. 16 and the Trojans winning the Oct. 11 rematch 1-0 in West Hartford.
As Linker said afterward, “There were no secrets in this game. Everybody knew what everybody had and it showed. Someone has to win it. [The Trojans] earned it.”
Simsbury (11-2-3) advances to the second round, where it will face No. 7 Trumbull (12-1-4) on the road on Nov. 14 at 2 p.m.
The season comes to a close for Conard (7-6-4), who had an excellent season, particularly considering that the team featured 17 new players, nine of whom were starters.
“We grew, we battled through everything,” Linker said. “ This is one of the teams that I’m most proud of. All they did is give everything they had every single time. They just worked as hard as possible.”