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Week 7: Centaurs guarantee tie for ECC Division I title

It was a great week for the Woodstock Academy girls soccer team.

It guaranteed itself a Class L state tournament berth early in the week with a 7-0 win over Fitch and followed that up on Friday by clinching, at least, a share of the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I regular season title with a 2-1 win over Norwich Free Academy.

“We set a goal to just improve and now, every day, we have to come up with a new goal because we’re better every day,” a very happy Woodstock Academy coach, Dennis Snelling, said. “We went from let’s compete for the Division I title to we might just have won it. We just want to keep going with whatever games we have left whether it’s the ECC or state tournament.”

The Centaurs own a 4-1 divisional record coming into the week, a game better than both NFA and East Lyme who are both 3-2.

The Centaurs finish up on Monday with a game at East Lyme.

If Woodstock Academy wins, it will take the Division I title for itself.

An East Lyme win means break out the tie-breaking formulas as all three teams would likely finish 4-2 in the division with the Centaurs beating NFA twice, NFA beating East Lyme twice and the Vikings beating the Centaurs twice.

“We had five wins last year and we’ve turned it around pretty quick with just a couple of new players and the experience for everybody else- that has been the difference. To go back to the ECC tournament would be perfect, none of us expected that,” Snelling said.

The Centaurs had to overcome some adversity to make it all possible.

They took a 1-0 lead over the Wildcats in the match played on the South Campus turf on Friday when Grace Gelhaus scored an unassisted goal with 1 minute, 55 seconds left in the first half.

But it wouldn’t end that easy.

The Wildcats tied the match when Jordan Fabry scored.

Then, disaster nearly struck.

Junior keeper Rebecca Nazer collided with an NFA player 14 minutes into the second half.

Snelling had to turn to freshman keeper Ellary Sampson.

“We’re hoping Rebecca is OK and that will be the real win of the day,” Snelling said. “Rebecca said ‘Good luck” to the team and we did what she wanted. I can’t say enough about Ellary coming in. She had not played varsity before. We had her maybe on the bench once before and trained with her once. I guess goalie is that kind of spot where you can just hop in.”

The freshman did not allow a goal and with 16:12 left in regulation, her efforts were rewarded as senior Gabby Couture scored what proved to be the game-winning goal.

“I was so man-marked the whole game and it was the one time that (NFA) was not marking me. I just screamed to Grace. She saw me, took some time, waited for the defender to go to her, I turned my body and I just hit it and it went in. I was so excited,” Couture said.

It’s a team that has come a long way.

“After our first game (a 7-1 loss to Stonington) we had a discussion and we really worked as a team to build up that family atmosphere. We really started to connect on the field and I think that’s so important. Winning this game (Friday), we just connected so well,” Couture said.  

The sooner, the better.

That’s the feeling of most high school coaches when it comes to qualifying for the state tournament.

The Woodstock Academy girls soccer team waited until the final match last season before officially punching its ticket.

It came a lot sooner in 2022.

The win over NFA raised its record to 7-4-2 but clinching a state tournament berth actually came the match before in the win over Fitch.

“It’s huge,” Gelhaus said after the win over the Falcons.. “I love this team. I loved last year’s team but I think this year we really clicked together to get to the States.”

Woodstock Academy wanted to get out of the box quickly against the Falcons.

But it did take a little while as keeper Grace Jenkins proved formidable for Fitch in the first half.

She made six saves including one on a penalty kick by Freya Robbie to keep the score within reach early.

The Centaurs did get on the board 9 minute, 29 seconds into the contest when Leah Costa delivered a ball to Gelhaus’ left foot right in front of the net and Jenkins had no chance.

Woodstock Academy then survived three good scoring chances by the Falcons to take a 2-0 lead 18 minutes later.

A determined Couture scored her first goal of the season when she took a point-blank shot at Jenkins on the right side of the net. The Fitch keeper stopped it but could not contain the rebound which bounced right back to Couture. She got her right foot on it again and this time, lifted it over Jenkins and just under the crossbar for a 2-0 lead.

Despite only a two-goal lead at the half, Snelling was not concerned.

“That’s kind of soccer. Fitch didn’t have as big a bench as we had, got tired, and eventually we knew the shots would go in because we had so many of them (20). It was a great job by their goalie. She has kept them in a lot of games,” Snelling said.

The goals came fast and furious in the second half.

“We had a conversation (at the half) about how good we were playing. We played well, just needed to keep our composure and we were doing everything perfectly fine like passing the ball and just needed to do more,” Costa said.

The Falcons also employed the offside trap which the Centaurs fell into a couple of times in the first half.

“I like teams that run the offside trap because it will fail more than it will work on the high school level. It’s a tricky thing to get away with when there is no linesmen and the kids being so fast,” Snelling said.

The start of the second half, however, showed what was to come.

Gelhaus just 1:59 into the second 40 minutes.

The senior now has 10 goals and seven assists on the season.

“I’m happy with those numbers,” Gelhaus said of her production thus far this season. “It’s great to have a team around me that knows how to play and gives me opportunities.”

Costa followed just 1:44 later when a bit of fancy footwork forced Jenkins to commit and the sophomore slipped it into the net for her seventh goal of the year.

Costa transferred in from Stonington this year and feels more than accepted.

“I’m very comfortable. I feel wanted here and loved being on this team with my friends whom I’ve known since I was little. I love being here. It’s a great feeling,” Costa said.

Juliet Allard took a pass from Costa with 27:45 left to make it 5-0 and Isabella Selmecki finished things up with her third and fourth goals of the season within five minutes of each other.

“We’re happy to make States. We had a lot of games (three of their last four) where we haven’t given up a goal,” Snelling said.

And it was the offense that was the Centaurs’ best defense as it kept Fitch locked in the defensive end for the most part.

“The offense will be the best defense because they are so hard to stop. They are so fast. Other teams have had to keep their faster players back and that’s their offense that they are keeping back to slow us down. It works both ways,” Snelling said.