Photo: Alex Servitopoulos celebrating his winning goal vs.Acton-Boxborough, 3-2
A year ago this week, Belmont High Boys’ Soccer players littered the turf at Franklin High School, having come ever so close to beating a top-ten seed, ruing the many missed chances in a “what if …” moment.
What a difference a year makes.
In a pair of nailbiting playoff matches, the 30th-ranked Marauders defeated third-ranked Acton-Boxborough Regional (3-2) and 14th-seed Natick High (2-1) in the MIAA Division 1 tourney, leaving the winning goals until late in both games, with the second against Natick coming down to the final kick of the game.
“We win pretty, we win ugly, We win with fire, we wind with passion,” said Belmont’s Head Coach Niman Kenkre said after a second emotional game against Natick. “They just refuse to lose. I’ve never been around a group of guys like this.”
“Their spirit, their mental strength to do what we done in both games. It bears out the work that we’ve put in, all the passion, all the love that these guys have for each other. It’s just rewarding for their commitment to the way we play and to each other.”
Belmont (13-5-4) will take its innovative tactics to Middlesex League Liberty rival 11th-seed Winchester (15-1-2) for an Elite Eight contest on Sunday, Nov. 12 at 11:30 a.m. In their previous matches, the Red and Black defeated the Marauders by identical 2-0 scorelines.
The last time Belmont had gone this deep into the MIAA tournament was in the Div. 2 North championship semifinals when Winchester beat the Marauders, 1-0, on its way to the state title.
The games stood out in their contrasting styles. Against Acton-Boxborough, Belmont excelled in the installment by Kenkre of a patient approach to attacking the opponent, using a combination of short and medium passes or dribbling with the ultimate aim of reaching the opponent’s territory in a superior position.
While most high school teams play long passes up the field with the hope of winning the ball, “we’ve really mastered playing from the back, breaking the field into thirds and building our offense in each third,” said team co-captain Sachil Kenkre after the A-B match which he collected three points on a goal and two assists. “It’s really beautiful soccer, and tonight it paid off.”
“At the start of the season, we were making mistakes left and right, and it was going to be hard to play high school [soccer] like that. But as you saw, it worked, and we beat the three seed,” he said.
“Tonight really validated the style of soccer that we’ve been striving to do all season,” said coach Kenkre.
Belmont 3, Acton-Boxorough 2
At Acton-Boxorough, Belmont’s pressure defense – attacking the Colonials’ backline and midfield with multiple players – allowed the Marauders to be on the front foot for most of the first 40 minutes. A-B had some of its own original set plays as they took the lead with just over three minutes to play, scoring on a corner from a player who came into the box on a deep run.
But the Colonials advantage lasted a mere 24 seconds as Kenkre scored a wonder goal of the season, a long-range blast that beat the outstretched hand of AB goalie Kai Chong into the upper net. Less than a minute later, a Kenkre free kick to the right of the goal found junior Owen Filler sneaking in from the backside, who headed the ball back behind Chong for a 2-1 lead entering halftime.
After the break, Belmont came out on the attack and missed scoring three times, only to see A-B senior Miller Lille lose his marker on a corner and run free for an open header to level the match at 2-2. For the remainder of the half, Belmont’s stylish and stout defending never allowed the home team to set up their long-ball attack.
The Marauders’ pressure on AB’s back line paid off big when they were rewarded a corner with barely five minutes remaining in the game. Kenkre’s corner found senior Alex Servitopoulos, who raised his six-foot frame high above the scrum and headed the ball into the left corner for the game-winner.
“It’s all a flash at this point,” said Servitopoulos. “I saw the ball go in, and everything stopped in my life. I swear I’m speechless.”
Belmont 2, Natick 1 (4-2 in PKs)
In contrast to the A-B match, Thursday’s game on Natick’s fridged field was a grind-it-out affair where tactics were replaced with a close-quarters physical contest. The Red Hawks felt more at home creating chances with long balls crossing the box with attackers missing several good chances with Belmont’s double zero Thomas Borkowski making a pair of outstanding saves in the final minutes of the half.
Natick was rewarded with the lead five minutes after the restart. A Borkowski punch save off a corner went to the feet of Natick’s big central defender Matteo Uyar, who launched a low screamer by Borkowski.
“You know, so many other teams would have packed it in [going down] 1-0. This team would not,” said coach Kendre.
After taking control of the match, Belmont would once again wait until five minutes to the end to score, relying on a first-year coming off the bench. Inserted a few minutes earlier, Lawrence Tu was at the right place at the right time when he corralled a loose ball outside the box to the right of the goal.
“Coach moved me off to attacking midfield, and I got in the box,” said Tu. “Sachil took a corner and it bounced straight to me. I just took a touch and it went in.”
“The whole season, I’ve just been filling in whenever I can. I just wanted to get the job done and I did so I am really happy,” said Tu.
The two 10-minute overtime periods were uneventful – except for two Natick starters who were carried off the pitch after collisions – and the game would be decided via the dreaded penalty kicks. After four converted kicks from 11 meters, Borkowski drilled a shot off the crossbar. But the senior stood tall, stopping the subsequent penalty stretching to his left, and sent the Belmont supporters crazy with a second consecutive save, this one at this feet.
“I knew my team was going to score. Just needed to keep one out and we were good,” said Borkowski.
Up 3-2, senior Samuel Kutsman came to the spot as nonchalance as if he knew the game was about to end. Kutsman’s run-up sent the Natick goalie to the left as he placed the ball into the right corner. All that was left to do was celebrate as Kutsman slid on his knees to the sideline, where his teammates met him as the Belmont supporters took to the field.
“I was confident in my abilities [scoring from the spot],” said Kutsman. “We’ve been practicing pens for five days. I just knew it from the start.”
Coach Kenkre said he was eager to meet that challenge with a one-loss Winchester facing them on Sunday.
“We’re ready. They’ve beaten us twice, but it’s always tough to beat a good team three times. We know how to play us, and we know how to play them. It’s going to be a great match. A Middlesex League team is going to the final four, and I think it will start with the letter B.”