The chant rose up from the Bunnell faithful with 27 minutes left in Saturday afternoon’s Class L state championship game against seventh-seeded Avon.
“This is our year. . . . This is our year.”
Indeed it was.
One year after suffering through a campaign marked by bitter disappointment, the fourth-seeded Bulldogs left no doubt about their standing as one of the state’s top teams, capping a brilliant comeback season with a 3-0 victory in the Class L finals in front of an estimated crowd of 2,000 at Middletown High School.
After a tightly-contested and scoreless first half, senior midfielder Fred Metellus buried the only goal Bunnell would need on a 40-yard strike in the first minute of the second half.
Standout senior forward Zach Zurita sealed the win with a goal in the 13th minute before assisting on another by Isaias Montalvo with 4:49 left, giving Bunnell its first state title in school history.
Bunnell, which also captured the South-West Conference title with a win over rival Pomperaug, finished with a 20-2-2 overall record.
Most importantly, the Bulldogs earned redemption after losing to Pomperaug in the SWC finals and New Canaan in the Class L state championship game last season.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Zurita, who was named MVP of the game after scoring one goal and assisting on two others. “A lot of people thought we were over-rated being ranked 27th nationally in the preseason then losing twice in the regular season. Coming into this postseason we really wanted to prove everyone wrong, and after today I think we can say we did.”
There is still some debate about who will end up as the state’s top-ranked team. Pomperaug (21-1-1) captured the Class LL state title with a 2-1 victory over Trumbull Friday night.
One thing is certain. This Bunnell team will go down as not only the best in school history, but the one that put Stratford boys soccer on the map.
“It was a perfect season,” Bunnell head coach James Ginand said. “I told the team, if you win this game no one is going to talk about the two losses or the two ties we had or that we were ranked nationally during preseason. We have two banners in our gymnasium now, and we never had those before. Everyone was out for us this year. It was harder this year than it was last year, and that’s a testament to how hard they worked this year.”
Avon (15-4-1) reached the state championship game on the strength of its defense, allowing just one goal with three shutouts over the first four tournament games.
The Falcons did a nice job limiting Bunnell’s scoring chances in the first half, packing the back line with a defensive stance while creating a number of opportunities of their own on the counter attack behind the play of physical forward Conor Lanahan.
But Metellus surprised everyone, scoring 53 seconds into the second half. Bunnell’s Justin Lewis was fouled in the center of the field. Zurita quickly placed the ball on the ground and tapped it over to Metellus, who launched a curving shot past Avon goalie Alex Andrews (3 saves) into the left side of the net.
“They were quick, big and physical,” Ginand said. “When we got that first goal it was such a relief. We like to play quick when we have the chance. We don’t do well on static kicks towards the goal. We always put them through the uprights. But a rolling ball, Freddie made a great strike on it. I’m super happy for him. It’s the winning goal.”
After that, Avon had to deviate from its game-plan, moving more of its players into the offensive zone to create pressure.
Bunnell used that to their advantage as Zurita took a long goal kick by defender Josh Poisson on the run down the right sideline, beat two Avon defenders on his way to the goal box then tapped a right-footed shot past Andrews to make it 2-0 with 27:53 left.
“They scored some great goals,” Avon head coach Patrick Mulligan said. “That kid smashed that ball into the lower corner, what are you going to do but applaud? The second goal was also a great goal. We had to push and that made us a little thin in the back. We created a few chances but were unlucky. I thought we had them on their heels a little bit in the second half.”
Avon put together eight minutes of solid pressure late in the second half, but missed a couple of shots just wide. Bunnell goalie Sebastian Tamayo (6 saves) did his part to preserve the shutout, coming out to deny a shot on a wide-open Ryan Marioni before making a diving save on Tyler Bonini with 8:07 left.
“He really stepped up in the second half,” Ginand said. “He’s been a little injured with a bad ankle. That’s why he wasn’t taking goal kicks. But the second half he had was like the year he had last year. He was great.”
Montalvo sealed the victory with 4:49 left after taking a left-to-right cross from Zurita before ripping a shot into the left side of the net that Andrews completely froze on.
After the game, the Bunnell players donned state championship T-shirts supplied by one of the parents, soaking in the proudest moment in the school’s soccer history.
“I can remember being on a team that went 3-10-3 in 1998,” said Ginand, a former player at Bunnell. “This team put us on the map. The whole town was behind us. I can’t be more proud of these guys.”