The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Middletown remains on a path to postseason
Potential future Blue Dragons watched from the bleachers at Rosek-Skubel Stadium as the Middletown High girls soccer team negotiated some obstacles on its way to a 1-1 tie against Plainville on Friday.
The outcome carried meaning well beyond the scoreboard.
Middletown, with a 4-4-2 record, remains on track to qualify for the state tournament for the first time in four years. It is encouraging progress for the Dragons after a 2020 season that came and went without them winning. The year before, Middletown won just three games, one fewer than in the previous year.
The deck again looked stacked against Middletown earning at least a point Friday, but the Blue Dragons weren’t going to be pushed around by the Blue Devils.
They matched the visitors’ physicality and overcame some serious adversity to turn in what coach Rachel Lemke said was their best performance as a unit — all under the watchful eyes of members of Beman Middle School’s players.
Middletown overcame two unforeseen, brutal obstacles: a non-contact leg injury to defender Jenaya Salafia just five minutes into the second half, and not being at full strength for the final 17:53 after freshman keeper Layla Pini was red-carded for handling the ball outside the penalty area.
In between, facing a 1-0 deficit, senior Abby Johnson steamed downfield to score off a textbook crossing pass from Bella Latina at the 60-minute mark to even the match.
“For this season, the determination, the grit, the heart, playing a full 80 minutes … we played a full 80,” Lemke said. “Even with a man down, everybody dug deep and had each other’s backs. And we finally
played as a whole, together. I was glad I was able to see that.”
Lemke, who’s in the midst of her seventh season as head coach, hasn’t had a tournament qualifier since her 2017 team went 11-4-1. Ten seniors on this year’s squad have had a big hand in restoring confidence to a program that has needed it badly.
“Just being able to be on the map for the tournament, knowing we haven’t been there in a few seasons, has really brought them confidence,” Lemke said. “I can really, truly see the confidence in us as we move forward. It does definitely help for the future. With the Beman Middle School students here, for them to kind of see the high intensity and energy from these guys, I think it helps Middletown High and our school district.
“But I think it is confidence for us just to know we’re right there, that we can get there (not just to the postseason) and that we can win games as long as we are prepared.”
Any success this season is crucial, too, in that there are only five juniors and five sophomores on the current roster. It stands to reason that any eighthgrade Beman players in the crowd on Friday who attend MHS will be needed sooner rather than later.
Middletown played with an edge against Plainville. Its previous match against the Blue Devils (5-2-2), which ended in a scoreless tie, was played with the similar won’t-back-down physical style. There were several yellow cards in Friday’s match, two on Middletown.
“We definitely don’t like to be pushed around,” said Lemke. “This game was a little more physical, with a little more fight on both ends. You can see that in how many cards there were. It’s not something that’s condoned. They had each other’s back, and that’s what the expectation is from start to finish.”
Plainville took the lead with 7:38 left in the first half when Julia Carlina, assisted by Marissa Miller, beat Pini out front.
Middletown had just a couple of decent scoring chances before Johnson beat her defender to Latina’s well-placed cross and blasted a no-doubter past Plainville keeper Amber St. Onge.
“We’ve been working on that in practice all season, feeding the ball to the outsides, crossing it in and going in and crashing the net,” Lemke said.
Johnson had an opportunity two minutes later to put Middletown ahead, but St. Onge got a hand on that shot.
Twenty-eight seconds later, Pini was sent off (and had to leave the stadium, per CIAC rule). Junior Tessa Labbadia came on and swung momentum back to Middletown when she batted away the resulting free kick. She also stopped a good Plainville chance off a corner kick less than two minutes later.
What coach wouldn’t be ecstatic with two talented, interchangeable goalies? Labbadia stepped in at a moment’s notice and didn’t miss a beat, finishing with four saves. Pini stopped six.
“The keepers know that it’s a game-to-game decision,” Lemke said. “There’s some days that I split them and some days, if one’s in and the momentum is there, they could be staying in for whole game. Tessa was there and ready to make that save. That’s what I expect. It was really nice to see that happen.”
Lemke praised the play of her back line — sophomore Micaela Cope and seniors Salafia, Madison Mounts and Liana Cayer. Freshman Talia Marchese came on to replace Salafia and played well.
“The entire back line is basically my savior,” the coach said. “Maddie Mounts (a tri-captain) will give you everything she’s got.”
In the attack, centermidfielder Johnson has been perhaps the team’s most reliable scorer, but help also has come from Mounts in the middle and Latina and Alexa DeSena on the outside. Striker Mariah Spada and Anetta DelPrado, also are threats to cash in.
“Anetta is the gritty one and the most competitive,” said Lemke. “She leaves everything out there. Mariah gets into the zone and into the game, and when she’s (subbed) out she’s getting everyone hyped up and keeps everyone in the game. From top to bottom everybody plays their role.”
Middletown has winnable games remaining against Bristol Eastern (3-6-1), Platt (0-9-1) and New Britain (1-7-0), whereas Maloney (8-1-2), Morgan (9-0-4) and Lewis Mills (6-4-0) will be good tests.
Meanwhile, the Blue Dragons had something to prove against Plainville and Lemke believes they did just that.
“They knew that we needed a result,” she said. “If it was a W, or a tie, it was a result. They know what was on the line.”