Friday, November 10, 2023

Windham boys’ soccer battles through to second penalty-kick round against Portland

By Matt Pascarella

In an impressive defensive battle, top-ranked Windham went toe-to-toe with fourth-ranked Portland in the boys’ varsity soccer semifinal round at Windham High School on Thursday, Nov. 2. In the end, it came down to a second round of penalty kicks where Portland outscored Windham and left the field with a 1-0 victory. Windham ended the season with a record of 14-1-1.

Windham junior Luke Cunniffe looks to get by a Portland
defender at Windham High on Thursday, Nov. 2 in a
boys' varsity soccer semifinal playoff match.
“The players recognize how much is on the line and the stakes of it all,” said Windham varsity boys’ soccer coach Jeff Neal. “At this level, a coach doesn't need to tell the players to dig deep. This group, from well before the season started, wanted to make a deep playoff run. They really care about one another and playing the best soccer possible. That's all the motivation needed when the game gets long. This is an awesome group of young men, and the future is bright.”

When Coach Neal looks back on the season, a lot stands out. Going undefeated in the regular season; defense and goalkeeper notching eight shutout victories, the program beating rivals Gorham and Scarborough, the embracing of players for community events like Red Card Cancer initiative and connecting with Middle School teams and Windham Youth Soccer players. This was a special group on and off the pitch; they all wanted to keep working.

Windham moved the ball well in the beginning of the semifinal match. This was a physical game. The entire team was aggressive and fought to be first to the ball. The Eagle defense prevented several scoring opportunities for Portland. Windham had many runs at Portland’s goal in an attempt to score, but Portland’s defense was strong.

Windham junior Luke Cunniffe had a shot at goal toward the end of the first half.

“The tension was high because we knew Portland was one of the top teams in the state,” said Cunniffe. “We knew we were going to focus on Portland’s midfield and Garrett [Crossman] and Dan [Hancock] did a good job of slowing them down. The game was electric.”

In the second half, Windham worked to get closer to Portland’s goal.

Windham Junior Lukas Hammond recorded save after save in an incredible display of skill and agility. He had nine saves off 11 Portland shots including two saves in the first round of penalty kicks.

“The pressure was definitely there,” said Hammond. “I felt like the whole town had my back, but my defense, my whole team, they were right there with me. Our defense the whole game we kept it even. We were really close; we never got down or mad at each other, we always tried to work through it together. You always face adversity in a season, it’s just a matter of when.”

Windham senior Nick Marion rocketed the ball at the Portland goal late in regulation.

Marion broke the school record for single-season scoring with an amazing 34 goals.

“Credit can go to my teammates and coaches for motivating me and putting me in spots to execute,” said Marion. “Like Coach Neal has always said, the game can make your day and break your heart. This game was just one of those heartbreakers. We fought until the end, and I couldn’t be prouder of my teammates in how much they wanted to win this one. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way no matter how hard you fight.”

The semifinal game remained scoreless at the end of regulation play.

In the first and second rounds of overtime, every Windham player pushed through any pain and kept fighting. No one let up for even a second.

Windham junior Sam Rogers and Cunniffe scored early in penalty kicks to give Windham the 2-0 advantage.

“We went into the game with zero losses and weren’t super scared to play any team,” said Rogers. “We went into that game like we were going to win it but weren’t expecting the players Portland had because we hadn’t played them this season. We played well getting the ball out quick and finding our forwards as soon as possible. We’re proud that we got that far against a tough team.”

According to senior Connor LeClerc, there wasn't a single person on the team who quit. They stepped on that field, everyone was playing for more than just themselves and that is all he can ask of teammates. The team was closer than any team he’s ever been on. Every day they pushed each other to get better. <

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