WORCESTER, Mass. – West Springfield claimed the Division 1 state championship 4-3 on penalties after a scoreless draw against Somerville on Friday night at John Coughlin Field on the campus of Worcester State University.
The game was so tight and tense that even five rounds of penalty kicks were not enough to decide a winner. It took until the seventh round of shooters, and more twists and turns than in 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, to decide a state champ.
West Side (17-3-3) had two opportunities to win the game in the shootout, but in the fifth round Somerville keeper made a clutch save to keep the Highlanders alive and in the sixth round the penalty sailed over the bar.
In the seventh round, up stepped senior defender James Kukharchuk. The unlikely hero, who was one of several West Side defenders that helped slow down the powerful Highlanders attack, fired his penalty and found the back of the net to spark wild celebrations from his teammates and the large Terriers crowd on the far side of the field.
Kukharchuk remarked, “I was shivering back there. I was cold and I was like, ‘Shoot…I don’t know if I can do it.’ I wasn’t sure if we had won…We did.”
Head coach Nick Gumlaw was confident that his team, which advanced to the sectional final on penalties, would have the edge if it went to a shootout.
He said, “I told them at halftime to just forget about the first half to move on and play with intensity and win balls in the air. We did it and we ended up winning in a shootout. We feel comfortable in a shootout; we have one of the best goalies in the state.”
Senior forward Thayrone Miranda did not participate in the penalty shootout for Somerville, but head coach George Scarpelli explained that it was the result of his off-season knee surgery from which Miranda has not yet fully recovered.
“People don’t realize that Thayrone’s not even at 60 percent,” said Scarpelli. “He has a tough time planting unless he’s at a full gallop. He can’t sit and plant to shoot; he can’t get that power.”
He continued, “We practice [penalties] every day and those are the guys that put them away, unfortunately it’s a little different when you’re out here playing for a state championship. It’s tough to ask a 16-year-old kid to do that.”
The Highlanders (21-2-1) jumped out to quick start to the game with a pair of shots that went narrowly wide in the opening four minutes. Miranda looked menacing along with fellow forwards Julio Salguero and Marcelo Brociner but, despite the control of possession, Somerville had a hard time creating open looks and clear-cut scoring opportunities.
Senior goalie Alex Kraver came in for special praise from his coach. Gumlaw remarked, “We see it from him all the time. He’s one of the hardest working kids. This whole senior group deserves it and to see them go out on top is huge.”
The second half continued the pattern of Somerville keeping the ball but having attack after attack crash against the West Side defense. The best chance of the second half came on a long ball forward that Kraver punched clear over the top of Joao Baptista and then the keeper recovered to save a shot by Salguero.
In the first overtime, West Springfield midfielder Matt Kolb saved the Terriers when he was able to clear a Salguero shot off the line that seemed destined for the bottom corner. In the second overtime, it was defender Mike Orlando that made a game-saving block when Salguero’s diagonal pass picked out Miranda in the box.
That type of defensive work epitomized the spirit of the West Side team under the pressure of the Somerville attack.
“Yesterday at practice we kind of mimicked what they would do,” said Gumlaw. “I think Alec [Rising], Jackson [Tansey], and [Mike] Orlando stepped up huge. They had big games for us.”
Kukharchuk added, “We shut down their main forwards. We saw that the left back always did the long ball to us, so we just watched out for that and marked up when they played the long ball.”
After taking the next step of advancing past the state semifinal stage, which the Highlanders reached in 2012, it was a difficult way to go out for the Somerville players.
Scarpelli reflected, “That’s what happens. That’s why you play state tournament games. You wait for someone to put one in or for a bounce, you know. That’s how it ends…I’m proud of them; they’re good kids.”