ROCKPORT — After decades on the bench for the Rockport boys soccer team, coach Dave Curley is no stranger to the state tournament.
His teams that have enjoyed the most postseason success, Curley said, have shared the same three attributes: health, timely scoring and strong goaltending.
The No. 5 seed Vikings found that recipe last night when they hosted No. 12 seed North Reading, a Cape Ann League rival, in the first round of the Division 3 North tournament. In a tightly-contested, physical contest, Rockport broke through for a goal midway through the second half and senior goalkeeper Eric Littlefield was able to preserve that lead as the Vikings advanced to the North quarterfinals with a 1-0 victory.
“That’s high school soccer and that’s Cape Ann League soccer,” Curley said. “That’s the way this league has been all year long. It’s really a shame, just the luck of the draw, that North Reading and Rockport had to meet so early. Those are two very, very good teams. Just a great back-and-forth game.”
For a time, it seemed as though neither team would budge. Both the Vikings and Hornets played fast and physical, and their respective backlines prevented many quality chances from getting through.
And when they did, Littlefield (10 saves) and North Reading goalkeeper Josh Intorcio (eight saves) were there to turn them away.
Ultimately, though, Littlefield won the goalkeeper battle. After senior captain Tucker Meredith flicked a header past Intorcio with 20 minutes left to play, Littlefield locked his net down.
If it weren’t for a phenomenal, sprawling save by Littlefield with 10 minutes to play, it’s likely last night’s game would have gone to overtime.
But when North Reading’s David Donegan laced a set piece toward the top corner from just outside the penalty box, Littlefield was there, diving up and to his left to deflect the ball off the post and out of bounds to preserve the Vikings’ lead and send them on to the quarterfinals, where they’ll meet No. 4 seed St. Mary’s on Tuesday at Manning Field in Lynn (6:00).
“That was huge,” Meredith said of Littlefield’s highlight-reel save. “That was absolutely the play of the game right there.”
The Vikings’ veteran presence shone through from the start. North Reading came out flying from the start, still riding the momentum from its 6-1 drubbing of Mystic Valley in the preliminary round.
But Rockport held steady, eventually gaining some momentum as the first half wore on. Were it not for the impressive play of Intorcio — who made four great saves before Meredith eventually beat him — the Vikings may have run away with last night’s game, outshooting North Reading, 18-12.
North Reading held tight, though, trading chances with the host Vikings in a back-and-forth first half.
After Intorcio turned away a Shaun Aspesi bid early in the second half, sprawling to punch the ball over the crossbar, it seemed as though the Vikings may never get one past him.
They finally did, though, when a North Reading foul left Rockport with a set piece along the right sideline from 30 yards out. Aspesi threaded the ball perfectly into the penalty box, and Meredith broke free, rising up above the charging Intorcio to flick the eventual game-winner into the back of the net.
“They hadn’t been marking me on the last two [set pieces],” Meredith said. “So I just went for the ball. It was there and I just had to elevate, and I got it.”
“Great service by Shaun and Tuck made great contact,” Curley added. “Didn’t go the way I drew it up, but we’ll take it.”
From there, Rockport held onto control. Outside of the foul just outside the box that led to Littlefield’s great save, Rockport’s veteran backline of Matt Rostowski, Caden Tibert, Nick Scatterday and Mike Carbone paced a shutdown defensive effort to preserve the win.
“I thought that the kids did a really nice job of limiting them to maybe three good chances,” Curley said. “We knew going in that this was probably going to be a 1-0, 2-1 game at most. Both teams played good, physical defense. That’s just great high school soccer.”
This Rockport squad has been in these situations before, having advanced to at least the Division 3 North semifinals in each of the past three seasons.
That experience carried them last night. And as the field narrows and games become tighter, they’ll continue to lean on that veteran presence to carry them through.
“We’ve been in games like this before,” Meredith said. “We were never worried. We knew we were the better team and we knew we could get it done in the end.”