FAIRFIELD — He graduated enough players to stock the starting lineup for his school’s football team, with a few extra for reserves.
Greenwich boys soccer coach Kurt Putnam said the objectives back in August were modest.
“If anybody said this at the beginning of the season, I’d have said really, we’ll take that now,” Putnam said Monday night, minutes after the Cardinals had come away with a hard-fought 3-2 FCIAC Tournament semifinal win over Staples to move a win away from repeating as conference champion. “To be honest our goal was to get back in the state tournament. It wasn’t that we had low expectations, we had honest expectations. The first one was to get back in the state tournament and take it from there.”
While it is completely reasonable to be skeptical that Putnam didn’t think his team could at least return to the conference playoffs, at the same time he probably circled Wednesday night on the calendar to attend the championship game as a spectator.
So what are the Cardinals doing with a 13-3-2 record heading into the final against Fairfield Ludlowe, which defeated Norwalk, 3-0, in Monday’s second semifinal to earn its first trip to the championship game?
Putnam’s few returning players had set the bar a little higher.
“We put in a lot of offseason training,” said Nick Bartels, the Cardinals’ fabulous forward, who scored the game’s final two goals — giving him 24 for the year — as the team twice came from behind. “There was a lot of press about Staples and Danbury, teams that had a lot of seniors back, and that gave us motivation.”
In a season of greater parity than at any time in recent memory, it was perhaps fitting that Staples (10-6-2), the most decorated program in league history, was cast as an underdog as the seventh seed, though the seedings were largely irrelevant this season save for first-round home games.
“Everyone in the tournament had a chance to win it,” Bartels said.
In a game refreshing as both teams pushed the play rather than falling into the trap of postseason conservatism, there were four goals scored in the first 28 minutes.
Staples took a quick 1-0 lead in the 4th minute when Gabe Pensak’s long throw-in nicked a player and trickled into the goal.
The Cardinals’ Alejandro MacLean equalized before the Wreckers went back in front again in the 21st minute on a spectacular header by Josh Berman high into the right corner of the net.
Bartels evened the game on a header of his own for a deadlock at the break.
Asked his mood as his team twice rallied, Putnam said, “Maybe they were determined to get back to the final again and try to defend their title. I didn’t think we were that bad the first half.”
The Cardinals dominated the final 40 minutes, and the game stayed close because of the play of Staples goalkeeper Noah Schwaeber, who made a pair of acrobatic saves, including one against MacLean, on a nice set up from Bartels, in the 55th minute that was Top 10-worthy.
But after the Wreckers cleared the ball, Greenwich regrouped and was able to spring Bartels free. This time he put a shot beyond Schwaeber’s reach for what proved to be the deciding goal.
“When you have a guy like Nick up front you know you have a chance of scoring goals and winning games,” Putnam said. “I asked them to win more of the first balls than the second balls. Usually that takes care of things, and they did that in abundance in the second half.”
The Wreckers have had a strong run despite being hit hard by injuries, and they will be a tough out in the state playoffs. But they were unable to keep pace in the end with the Cardinals.
“They’re quick, they’re crafty and they bang the ball forward,” Staples coach Dan Woog said. “It works nicely for them and they were on today for sure.”
Now a Greenwich team that has won three of the last six conference titles but didn’t think it would be in a position this year for a fourth goes up against Ludlowe, which will be looking to make history.
Asked to compare last season to this one, Bartels said, “Both are great feelings, but last year we were a very, very talented team. We are almost as talented this year. All these guys just combine really well. It is a lot of fun.”