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CIAC GIRLS SOCCER: Southington, Sheehan set to dance in final four

CIAC GIRLS SOCCER: Southington, Sheehan set to dance in final four

reporter photo

Tuesday is a big night for girls soccer, with CIAC semifinals getting under way at neutral sites.

In the final four mix are a pair of area squads:

■Southington, the No. 1 seed in Class LL, travels to Naugatuck to face No. 5 Ridgfield at 6:30 p.m.■Sheehan, the No. 8 seed in Class L, travels to Bunnell High School in Stratford to face No. 13 East Lyme at 6 p.m.

The Southington-Ridgefield contest features two teams that were unbeaten in the regular season. Southington is still unbeaten at 16-0-2. Ridgefield, which lost to St. Joseph in the FCIAC tournament final, is 17-1-3.

The Tigers avenged that loss to St. Joe’s on Saturday in the Class LL quarterfinals 2-1 behind goals from Eva McKinley and Caitlin Slaminko.

The victory kept Ridgefield on a well-traveled path. The Tigers are the two-time defending Class LL champions and have reached the state finals in each of the last four years.

“We know what’s ahead of us,” Southington coach Mike Linehan said. “We aren’t complacent to where we are. We are recognizing that we have something special going on here, but we are going to take one game at a time.”

Southington is playing in its first girls soccer state semifinal since 2006. That trip resulted in a 1-0 loss to Trumbull. Four years earlier, in 2002, the Blue Knights shared the Class LL title with Fairfield.

This year, after a first-round bye, Southington opened the postseason with two shutout performances, dispatching No. 17 Amity 4-0 in the second round and No. 9 New Canaan 3-0 in the quarterfinals.

Both games featured dominant defensive and midfield play for Southington. The offense came in second-half flurries. All but one of Southington’s seven postseason goals have been scored after intermission.

For the year, the Blue Knights have surrendered only five goals. They have scored 57.

Allison Carr, a junior, is Southington’s leading scorer with 16 goals. She also has six assists.

Carr’s younger sister Jessica, only a freshman, has nine goals and nine assists.

Then there’s junior Abby Sowa, who has 12 goals and 3 assists. Sowa has a big leg and takes the bulk of Southington’s free kicks. Like Allison Carr, Sowa has scored in each of the first two state tournament contests.

Along with Sowa and the Carr sisters, Southington has also gotten postseason goals from Emma Panarella and Marissa Imme.

In going up against Ridgefield, the Blue Knights know first-hand how good the Tigers can be. Ridgefield beat Southington 2-1 in the second round of the 2017 state tournament.

“I will never forget it,” Southington coach Mike Linehan said. “Alli [Carr] was a freshman and we lost 2-1. She had a late opportunity to score. She came right over to me [after Saturday’s win] and said, ‘I remember.’’’

Linehan said he feels that, despite being the No. 1 seed, Southington and the rest of the Central Connecticut Conference is a little underrated compared to the Fairfield County teams. The CCC and FCIAC go head-to-head in both Class LL semifinals. No. 3 Glastonbury and No. 2 Staples square off Tuesday at Waterbury’s Municipal Stadium.

“I still think there are people that don’t believe in us when it comes to the CCC against the FCIAC,” Linehan said. “The Amity coach left last Thursday and said that Staples is the team to beat and I told the girls that. I said, ‘Maybe they are, but we hope it’s got to go through Southington.’

“Don’t count us out,” Linehan added. “Even the papers blew us off and they immediately talked about a Ridgefield-Staples final. They immediately went there. We were mentioned because we were the No. 1 seed. So we have a little bit of a chip [on our shoulders]. I don’t make a lot of it, but I’m going to be honest: until we win it or Glastonbury or someone else from CCC wins it, maybe they have the right to claim what they want to claim.

“I completely respect every opponent. I respect the FCIAC; they are very good. But don’t disrespect us. There are other great teams in the state and I think we are one of them.”

Over in Class L, Sheehan also has some history with its semifinal foe, East Lyme. The Vikings defeated the Titans in the 1998 Class M semifinals on penalty kicks (4-3) after the teams were tied 1-1 through regulation and overtime.

The Titans enter Tuesday’s rematch after perhaps the biggest win in coach Rob Huelsman’s tenure: Saturday’s 1-0 quarterfinal upset of No. 1 RHAM in Hebron.

“We celebrated like it was the championship game,” Huelsman said. “We were excited to move on and take off the No. 1 team.”

Huelsman let his girls rest on Sunday after a physical 80 minutes of play against the Sachems. As he did in preparation for RHAM, Huelsman drew up a game plan and implemented it during Monday’s practice.

“These kids are pretty sharp and they’ve been playing soccer for a long time,” Huelsman said prior to that practice. “I had to rest them yesterday; they were worn out. But East Lyme has two really good strong forwards that we have to be aware of. They are skilled and score a lot of goals. They also have a strong center-back and midfield. Just a quality team.”

East Lyme (11-4-5) started its tournament run with a 3-0 win at home against No. 20 Maloney. Then the Vikings went on the road and knocked off No. 4 Ledyard 1-0 in the second round and No. 5 Mercy 1-0 in the quarterfinals. The latter match was decided by penalty kicks, 3-2.

East Lyme keeper Avery Owen made two diving saves in PKs. Ella Mazzulli, Emma Belleville and Grace Wargo each converted for East Lyme.

The Vikings have yet to surrender a goal in Class L play, the Titans just one.

Sheehan actually trailed 1-0 at halftime in its opening contest with No. 25 Branford before winning it on second-half goals by Sydney Cuticelli and Amy Casorla. Marley Esch scored off a first-half corner kick in Sheehan’s 1-0 second round win over No. 9 Killingly.

It was leading scorer Olivia Dubuc who provided the lone goal in the first half against RHAM. The senior connected on a free kick from 35 yards.

The defense was stout in front of keeper Beth Arnold to preserve the shutout.

“We played really well,” Huelsman said. “We did some homework on that team and all of the players knew what they needed to do. We had the strongest players marked up.

“It took me an hour and a half to get myself to calm down after the game. It was an intense game. I didn’t feel like I was coaching. It felt like I played 80 minutes.”

Huelsman said his girls are healthy and will be ready for Tuesday night.

“They are excited to get to this point,” Huelsman said. “We’ve been working for this for years. The chemistry is good.

“But we’re not looking too far ahead. It’s all about who we are playing and we are going to focus on Tuesday night. But it’s nice to see everyone come together like this. This is the time to be hot.”

No. 2 Suffield and No. 6 Guilford will square off in the other Class L semifinal. The championship games are on Saturday.