FAIRFIELD — The members of the Danbury boys soccer team wear their push-it-up style as a badge of honor. In situations where most would stress patience or, when playing with a lead, sit back and defend, the Hatters go forward.
“We don’t like parking the bus,” said Danbury captain Ricardo Rodriguez, offering his own term for conservative play.
Now, that bus is parked at the doorstep of the program’s first state title since 1998 after Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Shelton in a wide-open Class LL semifinal at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
“It feels good to win it. It was a tough game,” said Antony Howard, who in his first season as coach has led the Hatters to a position that once was a regular pitstop. “It was a little ugly conditions, it was slippery and it was a fight all the way. Until the fourth one went in and we could breathe a little.”
There is always little exhaling for Danbury until the final horn. It broke open a 1-1 tie with goals two minutes apart by Kevin Spennato and Felipe Alves for a seemingly secure 3-1 advantage. Conventional wisdom says drop everyone back.
Park the bus.
“We do give up goals,” Howard said. “That’s been the story all year. We don’t ever sit back. I always tell them to go. Sometimes offense is the best defense. We just keep pushing.”
The result of that gambling has risks, and the 7th-seeded Gaels, who had defeated unbeaten Greenwich in the quarterfinals, got a goal from Mikey Sciortino in the 70th minute to get right back in the game.
But in the 78th minute, the Hatters’ Chriss Sari beat goalkeeper Isaac Garcia to a ball and lifted it high into the untended net for the celebratory score.
“I thought we kind of gave them their two goals really and we had to work a little for ours and that’s a credit to their defense,” Howard said.
Danbury (15-3-4) advanced to the semifinals after a 4-2 win over Trumbull on Saturday.
“That’s what happened at Trumbull, they came back and then the game opens up and they have to push,” Howard said. “That’s when we’re good, when people go at us and give us space.”
You never bet the under when Danbury is involved. Howard said that is not the result of his philosophical beliefs. Rather, it is the sign of a savvy coach who sets his strategy based on personnel, not conformity.
“That’s mainly these boys,” Howard said. “I’ve coached a lot of boys in the past and you have to do what’s best for your kids. These guys love to attack. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it works for us. At the moment it is working so I can’t complain.”
Danbury jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the 8th minute on a brilliantly placed floating shot in the rain by Kaike Nascimento from the right said into the far corner.
“I actually thought it went out and then I saw the celebration,” Rodriguez said.
The chance to play with a lead was short-lived, as Kyle Gil delivered a long ball that bounced over goalkeeper David Mollenthiel and into the net.
Danbury got the better of the play the rest of the half, but the Gaels had the better chances when Mollenthiel made two spectacular saves after the break, and Isajiah Robles was inches wide with a shot on the ground in the 63rd minute.
Then Alves finished a corner by Rodriguez and Spannato scored his third goal in three days.
“We play to the last minute,” Rodriguez said. “We just love to keep going to goal.”
There was a time the Hatters were a state power. From 1987-98, they reached the final seven times, with three titles. There has been a revival in recent years, but the program, until Tuesday night, was on the cusp of breaking through.
Howard said his goals in early September were relatively modest.
“I was actually thinking about being competitive in the conference,” Howard said. “This is just a bonus. It shows you get a run of form at the end of year. The key for us is we’ve learned from our mistakes. I think it’s important if you lose or have upsets during the year. You get bigger, you get stronger. We’ve made adjustments because of our losses and now we’re playing like this.”
Asked if he expected to now be playing on the final day of the season, Rodriguez admitted, “Honestly probably not, since we lost a lot of players, but we trusted the younger ones coming in.”
Now, the bus is parked, but just until Saturday’s final with Farmington.
“I’m just enjoying the moment,” Howard said. “Obviously I’m over the moon, but we still have a job to do.”