HARTFORD — The season was already a rousing success for the Wilton boys soccer team long before they stepped on the pitch at Dillon Stadium today for the Class L championship.
The Warriors came in with the same number of wins as the last three years combined, more than tripling last season’s 4-9-3 finish.
No one was talking about Wilton two months ago, and returning to the state final for the first time in 15 years would have seemed laughable.
Laughable to everyone but Edwin Carvajal, the Warriors’ new coach, and his 29 players. It would seem only a win against three-time defending champion Daniel Hand this afternoon could have garnered this group any greater respect than had already been earned.
That, too, turned out to be incorrect. It would be difficult for a team to be any more valiant in defeat than Wilton was in today’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Tigers, the three-time defending champions.
Hand had to make sure its tank was on empty to shake Wilton, which three times overcame deficits in a game that will rank with the best finals in state history.
“What was it five goals scored in extra time?” said Liam McLaughlin. The sentence should really end with an exclamation point rather than a question mark. “It’s ridiculous. It’s unreal.”
Descriptive adjectives both, yet coming up short at the same time. McLaughlin was credited with the fourth of the five extra-time scores, though his perfectly delivered set piece into the box was really an own-goal after Hand goalkeeper Tim Perez was unable to possess it and the rebound caromed off a Tiger defender and into the net.
That came in the 97th minute — just the thought of more than an hour and a half of all-out attack seems wearying.
Yet four minutes later, and for the fourth and final time, the Warriors found themselves behind. Scott Testori, who had already scored twice, put a ball into the box and Jack Green finished it, the decisive goal for Hand in this instant classic.
“The fight that these boys have is unreal, this group is something special,” said the Warriors’ Parker Ward. “There’s no denying it. We never give up. We always play to the last whistle and that’s what we did today.”
Wilton needed just five games to match last year’s win total, and after 13 games it had not yet been defeated. The Warriors were the talk of the FCIAC, not just because of their sudden rise but the pleasing possession-based, open attack they used to achieve it.
Yet they ended the regular season 0-2-3 and then went out in the semifinals of the conference tournament. But before you could say “peaked too soon,” the Warriors regrouped and won four games by a 12-2 margin, reaching the final after defeating Wethersfield on penalty kicks.
Testori headed in a Cole Fink delivery in the 46th minute, but Nathan Bennett answered for Wilton in the 67th. The game went to overtime and the goals erupted. Chris Porte for Hand in the 83rd minute. Jake Lash answered for the Warriors with a low bullet in the 91st. Testori another header in the 95th minute. McLaughlin with the answer.
Back, forth. Back, forth.
“This entire season we just came from behind so many times,” McLaughlin said. “The whole motto of this season has been to fight to prove ourselves. We came up short but we played a hell of a game. I’m proud of everyone on this team.”
The players amazingly seemed to have perspective of their accomplishments on the heels of such an emotional loss.
“To not make states and then to get here and lose in overtime says a lot about our program, says a lot about these boys,” Ward said. “We knew we could do it last year and now we just showed that we could. It’s frustrating but that’s life. In life you get knocked down and you have to get back up and that’s what we did in the end. That’s sports. That’s life.”
Carvajal seemed to be taking the loss the hardest. After convincing his players all their highest goals were attainable, he wanted it for them as much as they did.
“I don’t have any words right now,” Carvajal said. “The kids fought valiantly and we came up short. Daniel Hand played us well. We just couldn’t find that last gear to finish up opportunities. It was the ability to play composed once we did tie it up and it hurt us from time to time. Those little moments of silly fouls here and there that hurt us.”
“I love the game,” he said. “It’s cruel sometimes. The game is as beautiful as it is because of situations where anything can happen on any given day.”
Whether this marks a revival of the program into a perennial contender is a question that will go unanswered for a few years. What is without dispute? The town’s soccer fans will always remember this season, whether it is a foundation that reached a peak or not.
“It stings right now but we have our heads high,” Ward said. “We had a hell of a year. We played some great games. We played some great soccer.”