Ten minutes into Port Chester’s Class A state final at Faller Field on Sunday against defending state champ Jericho, it looked like things could get ugly. The Rams had surrendered two quick goals, and found themselves facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit against a team that has been regarded as the best in the state all season.
Incredibly, PC responded and played 30 minutes of stellar soccer to close out the first half. The Rams had Jericho on its heels for the majority of the half, controlling possession and creating several opportunities. Ultimately, PC found out the hard way that it takes a complete effort to beat the best, as the slow start cost the Rams dearly in a 2-1 loss.
“I think we were just a little tight,” coach John Cafaldo said. “It hasn’t got us all year, but I think they got caught up in the moment. On the field with the defending state champs, they’re a little bigger than us.”
Port Chester looked like a team that was overwhelmed by the moment to begin the game, as a defensive lapse led to a quick strike from Jericho’s Zach Cohen in the second minute.
In the 10th minute, Jericho (20-1-1) struck again, with Ajani Motta cashing in on a ball that was misplayed by the Rams.
“On D, we weren’t exactly marking up how we’re supposed to,” senior defender Bryan Suertegaray said. “The second goal was an unlucky touch by one of our defenders. He tried to clear it out, and it tipped off the back of my foot. Unfortunately, there was a guy right there to put it away for them.”
In an attempt to rally the team, Cafaldo called star striker Steven Hernandez off of the bench. The super freshman didn’t start the game due to a ligament strain in his right elbow, but told his coach that he wanted to play through it.
“I talked to him on the way up after he went and got it looked at last night,” Cafaldo said. “He said he could play; he didn’t know if he could start. I was trying to go on a gut feeling… I tried to get him in there for a spark, but it looked like he was pretty limited.”
As I spoke with Cafaldo about after the game, it became pretty clear with each passing game that teams were playing not to let Hernandez beat them. PC was trying to force the ball to him throughout the game, but the Jericho did a good job of bottling him up. As a freshman whose body isn’t fully developed yet, it’s difficult to take a pounding all game for several defenders that are bigger than you.
“Even yesterday, he had a couple of opportunities,” Cafaldo said. “Today, he didn’t have anything. They were all over him. He had a guy on his left, a guy on his right, and another guy waiting on him when he made a move.”
Despite Hernandez being smothered by Jericho’s defense, the Rams (19-2-2) turned things on after going down 2-0 in a big way. Suertegaray shifted momentum in their favor in the 14th minute, getting his head on a corner kick from Alexis Valdovinos.
“Alexis is always great with his set pieces,” Suertegaray said. “They were marking me up with their tallest man. I just tried to get behind him so I could get some space to put my head in there.”
Port Chester continued to pepper the Jericho goal for the final 30 minutes of the first half, controlling possession and creating several chances. The Rams best chance to equalize came in the 36th minute when there was a chaotic scramble in front of the goal, but goalkeeper Ari Lewis was brilliant all game. He made two saves in that sequence, with the last one coming from his rear end on a point blank shot from yesterday’s hero, Preston Higgins. Lewis finished with seven saves – six of which came in the first half.
“I don’t know how it didn’t go in,” Cafaldo said. “That could have been huge if we get a toe poke or something there. (Lewis) was on the ground, he went out, he came back in, he used a leg, an arm – I saw body parts flailing all over the place there.”
After having the defending champs on the ropes for the majority of the first half, play began to even out in the second half. The wear and tear of a draining playoff season seemed to take its toll, as Port Chester got a little sloppy and predictable.
“We did play a little bit too direct – the one game that we lost we got into that same lull,” Cafaldo said. “I think we did get tired. I think their style of play wore on us – they were a little more physical than most teams that we play.”
“The second half they switched it up,” Suertegaray said. “They tried to drop back a little more and look for their forwards on the counter attack. We were a little tired, but I know our forwards and midfielders tried hard to put in a goal. It just didn’t come.”
While the Rams failed to capture the first state title in school history, there are many, many reasons to be proud of this group. After watching today’s game, I can confidently say that Port Chester was every bit as good as Jericho. They were just hurt by the slow start.
“This is a great group of kids,” Suertegaray said. “I still think we’re the best team in the state. We never gave up.”
It’s also amazing to think that this team made it as far as it did after last season. That was the team that was supposed to take Port Chester to new heights with a loaded senior class, but this group persevered with a more workmen-like approach. They didn’t have as much star power (at least not until Hernandez exploded in the playoffs), but played beautiful, cohesive soccer.
“We were underdogs all year,” senior goalkeeper Jose Gonzalez said. “We proved everyone who didn’t think we would make it this far wrong. It feels good to know that.”
Photos by Seth Harrison/The Journal News