History was going to be made on Friday whether the Warwick Vets or Cranston East boys’ soccer team came away with a victory in the Division III quarterfinals, as both teams were trying to get back to the semifinals for the first time in a long time.
The Thunderbolts seized the moment.
Playing inspired soccer from the opening whistle, East scored two first half goals and never saw that lead shrink the rest of the way. Vets managed a goal in the 70th minute, but at that point the deficit was too big. The ’Bolts left town with a 3-1 victory, and the ’Canes had to deal with their best season in recent memory coming to a screeching halt in their first playoff game.
“They came out aggressive to start in tough conditions, and they had a little bit of an edge on us,” Vets head coach Mike Kenney said. “We gave up two goals on corner kicks, which kills us. But I give them a lot of credit.”
The game was expected to be close given the proximity of the teams to each other in the standings. Vets was the No. 4 seed thanks to a 10-3-2 regular season – its highest win total since 2004 – while East was the No. 5 seed at 9-5-1, its best year since 2003.
In their regular season match-up, Vets won 4-1 but the game was significantly closer, and East failed to convert two penalty kicks.
The ’Bolts executed to near-perfection this time.
“It was the only time this year that my kids quit on us,” East head coach Richard Grenier said of the regular season meeting between the two teams. “But there was no quit in the kids today. It was all fight. We knew that Warwick was going to be a tough opponent, they’re well-coached.”
After winning the coin toss, East elected to go with the wind – which was blowing significantly – in the first half, and it didn’t take the ’Bolts very long to get on top.
In the ninth minute of play, Dennis Vasquez created a little space for himself near the right corner flag and lofted a perfect cross to the back post. Kevin Donnelly headed the ball, but it was saved by Vets keeper Mike Riccitelli. The ball stayed alive in front, though, and David Morales easily tapped it into the goal. East was up 1-0.
“The first time was a competitive game,” Kenney said. “We were lucky in that game. This game, Cranston East took it and ran with it. I told our kids that Coach Grenier was going to have them fired up.”
The ’Bolts were plenty fired up, and they channeled the intensity into another first-half tally. In the 27th minute, East forced a corner and Jimmy Vang sent the ball gently to the back post, over the head of Riccitelli. Jason Venda was waiting for it, and easily volleyed it into an open goal for the 2-0 lead.
“When it’s the fall – I’ve been doing this over 20 years – and you get a chance to get the wind, you go for it because it may die down,” Grenier said. “It didn’t really die down, but our goal was to go and get those first couple goals. Luck was on our side, we won the coin flip to open the game.”
Still, it was only a two-goal game, and Vets had the wind in the second half. Unfortunately for the ’Canes, East made an adjustment that proved tough to handle. It moved Vasquez back to sweeper, and he helped shutdown any real chances Vets had.
”Dennis hasn’t scored a goal yet in the playoffs, but just having him on the field – being unselfish, making the passes and then being able to put him back on defense – it’s such a plus for us,” Grenier said.
In the middle of the half, however, Vets finally started to find its way. First, Adam Dorsey sent a cross to the box that was up for grabs, but nobody on Vets could get a solid foot on it, and East keeper Tommy Logan was able to grab it. In the 61st minute, Nikone Soupharath sent a header to the left side of the goal that smashed off the area where the post meets the crossbar.
One minute later, Brad Robert sent a header wide of the net.
But in the 67th minute, East put the game basically out of reach. Kenny Vang threw the ball to Kevin Pantoga near the Vets goal line, and Pantoga took a shot. The ball was sent wide of the net, but it hit off a Vets player and flew by Riccitelli for a goal.
It was a crushing blow, but the ’Canes didn’t quit. Three minutes later, Tyler Kurtz took a corner and Andrew LeBlanc was able to punch the ball past Logan for a goal, but the ’Canes couldn’t build on it. They got four corners in the game’s final four minutes, with all of them coming up empty.
“We re-focused in the second half and we had a lot of opportunities, especially near the end there,” Kenney said. “It wasn’t enough. Cranston East played well today.”
Riccitelli made 10 saves in net for Vets, while Logan made six for East.
The ’Bolts will make their first semifinal appearance since 2006, and they’ll take on West Warwick on Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Cranston Stadium. The loss kept Vets from reaching its first semifinals since it made the D-II semis in 2005.
Yet, while disappointing, it didn’t diminish what was the second consecutive resurgent year for the program. The ’Canes won one combined game from 2009-11 before winning a preliminary round playoff game last year and reaching the quarterfinals.
This year, they reached the quarterfinals again.
“This is a special group of kids,” Kenney said. “This senior class came in at the worst time, and they persevered and they got through. They ended up their junior and senior year playing in the playoffs. It looked awful bleak back when they were freshmen and sophomores. They had 10 wins this year. I can’t ask for much more than the effort these kids gave.”
And with a potential school closing looming, it may have been the final game in Vets boys’ soccer history. If that’s the case, the final season was one to be proud of. The ’Canes will graduate seniors Brandon Gemmell, Kurtz, Justin Batista, Tyler Oliveira and Riccitelli.
“It’s just a special group,” Kenney said. “It’s a real special group, and it’s going to be a shame if we have to break them up, but I am extremely proud of this group. I’m thrilled to say I was their coach, to the last guy off the bench on JV right through the senior captains. They’ve given us everything we’ve asked for.”