From a two-win season in 2010 to the FCIAC semifinals and state quarterfinals in 2011.
The remarkable turnaround continued for the Darien boys soccer team Monday afternoon as the fifth-seeded Blue Wave notched their second shutout in as many games in the state tournament, riding a penalty kick goal by junior Brennan Branca and several spectacular saves by classmate Jack Fisher to a 1-0 victory over No. 12 seed New Canaan in a gripping second round matchup.
Having just knocked off the defending Class L champion, the Blue Wave (14-3-3) now sets its sights on the other L finalist from last year in fourth-seeded Bunnell, the SWC champion which eliminated Naugatuck 3-1 on Monday. The quarterfinal contest will take place on Wednesday in Stratford at 2 p.m.
The Rams (10-5-5) and Blue Wave battled to a 1-1 draw in the regular season, setting the stage for a postseason rematch that took their rivalry to the next level.
Both sides had their chances, but the only ball that found the net was Branca’s penalty kick in the 12th minute that came after a controversial hand ball in the box off a cross by Spencer McMullin.
Matched up against junior Scott Levene, one of the top keepers in the state, Branca never hesistated. And Levene never had a chance. It was rocket into the left corner, extending Branca’s perfect PK streak this season.
“It really wasn’t on my mind who I was shooting against,” Branca said. “He’s a great goalie, but I was just focused on the placement of my shot. We’ve come a long way, and it feels great to play a part in that. Having 300 or so fans here really made a difference, it was a great atmosphere to play in.”
New Canaan finished with 11 shots and turned up the intensity in the second half, but couldn’t get the equalizer despite a slew of corner kicks and free kicks – the latter of which were served up off the foot of Levene.
“Our boys have been resilient and I’m proud of how they fought,” said coach Victor Sanchez, who guided the Rams to the state finals in each of his first two seasons on the job. “We kept pushing and pushing and stayed in our system, but Darien did a great job of containing us. It’s been a great ride, getting to the finals is a hard thing to do.”
Fisher made eight stops – highlighted by a punching save over the cross bar on a header by senior standout Jon-Luke Ferrandino midway through the second half. The skilled Ferrandino was a threat with the ball all game long, but was neutralized by a Darien defense spearheaded by seniors Ellliot Helgans and Matthew Collier, and juniors Jimmy Documet and Marcus Iqbal.
“They are my best friends on the field,” Fisher said with a smile. “We believed in our hearts and heads, and now here we are in the quarterfinals. It’s like a dream come true.”
When the horn went off the Blue Wave were mobbed by their fans, and the celebration was on. It sure didn’t come easy.
“We knew it was going to be a physical battle,” Helgans said. “There was quite a bit of attitude on the field.”
Not to be understated is the impact first-year coach Jon Bradley has had on the Darien program. Known more for their prowess in sports like football and lacrosse, the soccer team is quickly making a name for itself on campus as well.
“Obviously we’ve superseded our expectations this season,” Bradley said. “This was a tough, physical game and it’s a lot of fun to be standing here watching these boys soak up the moment with all these fans. I know (Bunnell) is a very good team, so we’re expecting another tough game.”