By Mitch Silver
The newly crowned Section 1 champion Rye Neck Panthers had little time to savor their thrilling 1-0 victory over Briarcliff for the Class B soccer title. Four days later they took the field at Lakeland High in a Regional semifinal against Section 9’s Rhinebeck Hawks.
Things didn’t start off on the right foot, as the Hawks controlled play for most of the half. When Nakoa Zuger was left free on a corner kick in the 37th minute, his header would prove to be all the offense the Hawks would get. But it looked to be enough after an hour of play.
That’s when Rye Neck striker Jack Sheldon was fouled in the 18-yard box. Jonathan Casas took the kick from the spot, which deflected off keeper Ethan Viator and dribbled behind the end line, resulting in a corner kick. Casas said, “I was really nervous taking the PK. I missed it, and knew I had to put in a good corner kick to make up for it. Jack’s header was beautiful.”
The center forward’s goal from the Casas assist finished the scoring in regulation. Then, in the second OT period, center back Tom Crook drove a ball into the box that Sheldon got his head on. The ball deflected off goalkeeper Viator and bounced out to Rye Neck’s junior stopper Del DaSilva, who headed it in for the 2-1 winner.
It was out-of-the-frying-pan time 72 hours later, when the locals traveled to Byram Hills to take on the top-ranked team in New York State, the Center Moriches Red Devils. The Long Island champions dressed 25 players to the Panthers’ 17, and they shuttled fresh players onto the pitch throughout the game.
Still, though the Devils retained most of the possession in the first half — through their beautiful short passing game and the power of All-State scoring machine Ben Hamilton (38 goals on the season) — Rye Neck goalie Guillermo Pons and his defense, anchored by Crook, held the fort.
They had a little luck, too. Crook cleared a shot off the line seven minutes in, and Hamilton hit the crossbar midway through the half. Pons made eight saves before the intermission but, unfortunately, two of them — impressive stops from point-blank range — were followed immediately by a third, another close-in shot by Liam Pulsipher, for the score.
The goal gave Center Moriches the lead and Rye Neck the motivation. After the game, center midfielder Donovan Dunning said, “We talked at halftime about how they were beating us, made some adjustments and came out in the second half and took over momentum.”
The pressure told almost immediately, as a Red Devil defender bodied Spencer Goldberg off the ball in the penalty box. Dunning took the kick, but goalkeeper Curtis Copenhaver threw himself left and smothered the shot.
The last half-hour of the contest saw two players dominate: Copenhaver made play after play in the Center Moriches goal, and Tom Crook, the player of the game, stopped everything coming his way before sending ball after ball into the box that just eluded his teammates.
When the final whistle blew to end their season, Rye Neck had been attacking the Red Devils’ goal for a solid ten minutes. But the 1-0 decision sent the top seeds into the State Final Four, where they won the State Class B title last Sunday, and the 14-5-3 Panthers home.
If it’s any consolation, Rye Neck is now the fifth-ranked team in New York. And prospects for 2018 are even rosier.
Jack Sheldon (12), Spencer Goldberg (7), and Tom Crook (4) gave Center Moriches fits.
Dan Fujiwara’s header is saved by the defender.