PROVIDENCE – “Shea is probably the most technical (skilled) team in the state,” La Salle coach Mario Pereira was saying on Saturday afternoon, “but I told my kids I think we are the better team.”
The Rams, who had the best record in Division I during the regular season, proved their coach right by hanging on for a 3-2 victory over the Raiders in the Division I state title contest.
Shea won the coin toss and elected to play into the wind during the first half and quickly fell behind, 3-0.
“We wanted the wind in the second half,” Shea coach Pierre Ridore said after the match ended. “I expected an even game in the first half and then we would have the advantage after that.”
The Raiders controlled much of the action in the first five minutes. Ienik Spencer ended one offensive thrust with a hard shot on La Salle goalkeeper Kolby Faria, who stood his ground all game long. The Rams cleared the ball to midfield and sophomore midfielder Daniel Apajee did the rest, taking the ball deep into Shea territory, beating two defenders and then bombing a hard shot past Shea goalie Julio Garcia for a 1-0 lead just 5:12 into the match.
It got worse for Shea in a hurry. Less than eight minutes later, La Salle’s Anthony Micheletti launched a free kick from 40 yards out that eluded Garcia’s leap and nestled into the top left corner of the goal.
“That was a beautiful shot,” Pereira said, and indeed it was a perfect ball that rode the wind.
The Rams scored in similar fashion 16 minutes later when Alex Laprade teed up a free kick from 25 yards out. Garcia took a couple steps forward, then realized the ball was carrying over his head. It, too, landed in the top left corner of the netting.
“I think it was a combination of the sun and the wind that hurt us in the first half,” Shea’s Richmond Baffour would say afterwards.
“I would still do the same thing,” Ridore said, referring to his decision to play into the wind in the first half. “The wind definitely took the ball and moved it in the air. But I was proud of our team. They fought back from being three goals down and played with everything they had.”
The Raiders got back into the game with 6:20 left in the first half when Joao Cardoso was tripped inside the box, resulting in a penalty kick that Cardoso converted.
Shea continued to push the action in the second half. Emerson Barros went in deep with the ball and passed across the goal mouth, just missing Cardoso as La Salle defenders bottled up the Raiders’ striker. A few minutes later, Spencer sent the ball over to Barros 10 yards in front of the goal. The state’s leading scorer pivoted and shot in one motion, sending a slow dribbling ball into the right corner of the net.
Now it was 3-2 with plenty of time left. La Salle began dropping all of its players into the defensive end of the field. The Raiders would try to dribble and pass their way into scoring position, only to have the ball intercepted and kicked out of danger by the Rams’ defense, led by midfielder Colin Patch.
Three minutes after Barros scored, Shea almost scored on a throw-in, with the shot going off the outside of the netting on the left part of the goal. With 16 minutes remaining, the Raiders worked the ball within five yards in front of the LaSalle goal. The ball came to Baffour, who tagged a hard shot right into the hands of Faria for the biggest save of the game.
“I thought I had one there,” Baffour said with a wistful smile on his face.
“I just followed the ball and trusted the four guys in front of me,” Faria said. “We practice that so much, it’s almost like second nature.”
The action remained in La Salle’s end for most of the final 12 minutes but the Raiders could not penetrate the Rams’ defense. They had two players in position to score on a long throw-in but the ball was headed wide of the net at the 6:40 mark.
With three minutes to go, Barros made a strong run that ended with La Salle’s double-team taking the ball away.
After the game ended and players from both sides shook hands, Barros took the loss stoically. This would be the last game of his high school career, one that ended with his 60th career goal in just three seasons on the varsity.
“We were down three goals,” he said, “and we never gave up. I am very proud of this team and proud to wear the Shea uniform. This was my last game. It (this loss) hurts because we have been playing for this moment since we started practicing in April.”
It is the second straight narrow defeat in the state title game for Shea, which fell by a 2-1 score to Barrington last year.
“It is very disappointing,” Ridore said, “because we were here last year and lost. A lot of guys from this team will be gone next year but we have plenty of good players on the squad and a few new ones coming in.”
The La Salle players celebrated their school’s first state championship in boys’ soccer since 2005, a long time for a program that always ranks near the top of Division I.
“We lost one state championship game on a wind-aided shot that got away from us against Barrington,” Pereira said. “It is what it is. Shea chose to go against the wind in the first half. We really needed to get ahead with the wind at our backs. I give Barros a lot of credit but our No. 18 (Robert Jackson) stayed with him. And when Cardoso got open, Robert went over and covered him, too.”
The key goal of the game, Pereira said, was the first one, the brilliant run through Shea’s defense by Apajee, who ranks with Barros and Cardoso when it comes to fluid offensive skills with the ball.
“Daniel’s goal gave us a 1-0 lead and made us believe in ourselves,” Pereira said.
Shea outshot La Salle 11-6. Unofficially, the Raiders had 13 dangerous scoring opportunities on the day, roughly double what the Rams developed. Of course, with an early 3-0 lead, La Salle didn’t have to push the action the way Shea did.
Shea 1 – 1 – 2
La Salle 3 – 0 – 3
First half scoring: 1. L, Daniel Apajee (una.) 5:12; 2. L, Anthony Micheletti (una.), 12:04; 3. L, Alex Laprade (una.), 29:12; 4. S, Joao Cardoso (una., penalty kick), 33:40.
Second half scoring: 5. S, Emerson Barros (una.), 54:15.
Shots on goal: Shea 11, La Salle 6. Corner kicks: Shea 3, La Salle0. Goalie saves: Kolby Faria (LA) 7; Julio Garcia (S) 3.