LYNN -- As the field narrows in the Division 3 North boys soccer tournament, the same handful of teams always seems to be there.
Rockport is one. St. Mary’s of Lynn is another.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Vikings were expecting a battle when the two teams met in the Division 3 North quarterfinals at Manning Field last night.
And what a battle it was. Fifth-seeded Rockport got out in front on a Conor Douglass goal in the second minute of the second half and survived a late push by the No. 4 seed Spartans to advance to the North semifinals with a 1-0 win.
“Two years ago, we beat these guys for the North championship,” Rockport coach Dave Curley said. “This team mirrors us. Coach [Mike] D’Agostino took the program over four years ago and he’s really got these kids playing well. We expected it to be like this.”
From the opening kickoff, the parity on the field was obvious. Rockport’s crisp, controlled style and steady defense was countered by St. Mary’s physical play and vertical, quick-hitting attack.
And after the Vikings were unable to convert on three great opportunities in the first three minutes of the game, it was clear they were in for a dogfight.
As the teams traded chances in a scoreless first half, the importance of the game’s first goal couldn’t be overlooked.
Fortunately for Rockport, the Vikings struck first. After a St. Mary’s corner kick was cleared away from goalkeeper Eric Littlefield, forward Shaun Aspesi corralled a long pass at midfield and attacked four Spartan defenders with Douglass to his right.
The gifted junior maneuvered his way through the St. Mary’s backline and threaded a beautiful ball over the top to Douglass. The CAL Small Player of the Year settled the ball at the top of the penalty box and slid it past the Spartan’s charging goalkeeper to put the Vikings on top for good.
“I don’t know who played it to Shaun but it was a long ball, and Shaun collected it cleanly,” Curley said. “He beats his man off the dribble and gets his head up quick enough to find Dougie, makes a beautiful pass to Douglass. But, again, it’s in the air and Douglass has to collect it quickly, settle it and bury it. We were blessed that we had it in the hands of our two best goal-scorers.”
“Shaun made an incredible move,” Douglass added. “I think he heard me screaming at the
top of my lungs and he played me a great ball and I just tapped it in.”
While that goal proved the eventual game-winner, the game was far from decided at that point. The Spartans made it clear that they weren’t going to go quietly, and D’Agostino committed numbers to the attack as they fought for the equalizer.
But that’s where Rockport’s experience shined the brightest. The backline was rock-solid, unshaken despite the waves of offense being thrown at i.
Senior sweeper Matt Rostowski cleared out the penalty box all game. His partners defensively -- seniors Caden Tibert, Nick Scatterday and Tucker Meredith -- kept St. Mary’s to the outside and prevented many good scoring opportunities.
“I thought Rostowski in the back was sensational tonight,” Curley said. “Caden Tibert, that’s the second game in a row he’s had to mark up the team’s best goal-scorer. Another shutout.
“Rostowski, Scatterday, Tibert and Meredith. Four seniors. They’ve been here for four years and they’ve been to two semifinals and two finals. They don’t panic.”
And as he was in the Vikings’ first round win over North Reading, Littlefield was there to make the saves when they counted.
With 13 minutes left on the clock, speedy St. Mary’s midfielder Kevin Esper beat a Rockport defender and barreled toward the corner. He slid a pass into the penalty box, where an unmarked Alexander Alleyne unleashed a rocket on net.
Littlefield didn’t budge, deflecting the ball out of bounds to preserve the lead and help propel the Vikings to their fourth-straight Division 3 North semifinals.
“Your goalkeeper’s got to make a save or two when you get to this level,” Curley said. “And, once again, he did.”
The Vikings will meet No. 8 seed Weston, which beat top-seeded Boston International yesterday, in the semifinals, a team the Vikings saw in the North championship game in 2009 and 2010 in the semi finals.
“There’s some history there,” Curley said.
As last night proved, there are no cakewalks at this stage in the state tournament.
The Vikings have been there before, though, and they don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.
“St. Mary’s played with a lot of heart, but our guys, no one’s going to outwork us,” Curley said. “No one’s going to beat us up and down the field and today proved that. Our kids are experienced, our kids are battle-tested and they’re not going to panic. They’re able to stay mentally strong.”