The second time that Port Chester’s Preston Higgins came limping off the field, I thought that was it for him. The senior midfielder has been dealing with a stomach virus all week, and a nagging ankle injury made running and cutting a struggle. He had come off of the field once in each half during Saturday’s Class A state semifinal against Fowler at Faller Field, but after a brief stint on bench each time, he was back up and into the game.
Good thing for the Rams, because he was needed. With Port Chester facing the possibility of sudden elimination when the game went into overtime, it was Higgins who fought through the pain for golden goal.
The 2-1 win puts Port Chester (19-1-2) into Sunday’s state championship game at 10:30 a.m. against defending state champ Jericho at Faller Field. It will be the Rams’ first state final appearance since 1995. They have never won a state title.
“I haven’t capitalized lately because of my ankle injury, but one thing I do know is that I have that length and height, and I can capitalize in the air,” Higgins said.
Alexis Valdovinos placed a long pass perfectly on Higgins’ head, as he used his 6-foot-2 frame to reach the ball at its highest point with 6:06 remaining in the first overtime period.
“This week basketball practice started,” coach John Cafaldo said with a laugh. “He used his basketball skills there.”
The fact that the game even reached that stage was a surprise, as the Rams outshot Fowler 23-7 and controlled possession throughout.
“We were dominating the whole game, and the ball didn’t want to go in,” senior William Ribiero (pictured to the right) said. “We had chances after chances, and when the second half ended, I was like, ‘Why are we still playing this game?’ ”
“I was getting nervous – I don’t know about them,” said a relieved Cafaldo. “We put a bunch of pressure on, but we need to finish there. We didn’t take enough shots, I thought. It would have made a difference, but we kept working.”
The Falcons (19-2) benefitted from a controversial foul call in the 11th minute, with Jean-Paul Mboyo netting the ensuing penalty kick for an early 1-0 lead. From my vantage point, it was pretty clear that a Fowler player had a handful of a Port Chester defender’s jersey, but the defender was called for his reaction. It was a classic example of the guy who retaliates being the one who gets caught.
“I thought it was definitely a jersey pull (on Fowler),” Cafaldo said. “You could see it.”
But Ribiero answered right away, showing some nice touch to loft a ball over the head of Fowler goalkeeper Abdullah Abdulkareem in the 13th minute to tie the game at 1-1.
“The ball was bouncing in the box, and I was lucky enough to get a touch. The touch was good enough to go over the keeper, and he couldn’t reach it,” Ribiero said. “I knew I had to step up. I’m always the assist man, but today I wanted to be more than that. I wanted to show everybody that I can step up at any time, and not to fall asleep on me.”
Ribiero has been playing well all season, but has really stepped up his game of late. He plays a similar role to that of Kevin Riveros last season from the central midfield position.
“Will has been out of this world,” Cafaldo said. “He’s stepped up, and he’s been our guy. He hasn’t gotten all of the attention, but he’s been huge all year. He’s got great footwork, great speed, and with the ball he can pull away from defenders. He’s holding it down in the middle for us, and he’s making plays.”
Getting goals from Ribiero and Higgins was especially critical for the Rams, as the Falcons were shadowing super freshman Steven Hernandez (pictured to the left) with two or three guys for the entire game. Fowler was a very physical team, and Hernandez – who had scored seven of Port Chester’s nine playoff goals coming into the game – was getting tugged and bodied all day.
“They were marking Steve, which gives me and Preston more room,” Ribiero said. “We were kind of unstoppable today. It gave us more space… They forgot about us.”
Beating Jericho will be a tall task for Port Chester, but the Rams have been overcoming the odds all season. They got to Faller Field early today to watch Jericho play in its state semi. It’s also worth noting that after playing on Middletown’s wide turf field today, the state final will be played on a smaller grass field on the opposite side of the press box.
“We saw their game,” Higgins said. “We saw their forwards are pretty heavy on their feet. They have good ball work, but we’re ready for that.”
Photos by John Meore/The Journal News