Late goal gives Hawks NVL championship

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Woodland’s Jenna Mierek, right, and Sara Alessio lift the NVL championship trophy after beating Holy Cross to win the title Nov. 4 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

WATERBURY — The bangs on the door grew louder and the buzz of close calls near the net hit a fever pitch late in the second half of the Naugatuck Valley League girls soccer championship match.

There were just minutes remaining, but the Woodland game-winning goal felt inevitable.

It finally came with 3 minutes, 43 seconds left — a forward ball from midfield by Katy More, a flicky header at the top of the 18-yard box by Michaela Gasparri, and a one-on-one goal near the left post by Sara Alessio comprised the championship-winning sequence in the Hawks’ 2-1 win over Holy Cross at Municipal Stadium on Nov. 4.

“All my work for the past four years, it feels like it’s worth it,” said Alessio, a senior who leads the Hawks in scoring. “Winning it during my senior year feels incredible.”

Woodland (16-0-3) took a 1-0 lead midway through the first half on Jenna Mierek’s goal, but the Crusaders tied the score with 35:47 left when Grace D’Amico capitalized on a penalty kick.

The teams traded possession for the next 15 minutes, but the field tilted in Woodland’s favor as regulation drew closer to the end. A series of grade-A chances, including a pair of near-misses at net and a ball that was tipped off the crossbar, left the Hawks with both frustration and hope.

An injury to a Holy Cross player with less than 10 minutes to play gave Woodland coach Cait Witham a chance to encourage her squad to nab the go-ahead goal.

“I told the girls, ‘We are knocking on the door. We are almost there. We are minutes away from getting the goal we need and the goal we deserve,’” Witham said. “The kids found a way. Michaela does a really good job playing with her back to the goal, and Sara is like a pit bull who always plays hard through every play. That’s what we preach because you never know what can turn into a goal.”

Gasparri, a freshman, tracked More’s lofty pass and leaped with her back to the net to redirect the ball behind her to a streaking Alessio.

“It was a great ball from Katy,” Gasparri said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I just headed it. Luckily, Sara Alessio finished it for me — she usually does.”

“Michaela’s header got around and I got on it with the right angle,” Alessio said. “We earned it after the possession we held throughout the game.”

The championship is the third in program history and the Hawks’ first since 2015, when they also tore through the regular season undefeated and eventually reached the Class M semifinals. It remains the best season in Woodland soccer history — and in some ways, this year’s team reminds Witham of that bunch.

Woodland’s Paige Letourneau (14) pushes the ball up the sideline past Holy Cross’ Alexa Diorio (3) during the NVL championship game Nov. 4 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

“They put in the hard work during the offseason, and they really embrace everything that Rosie (Santos, the first-year assistant coach) and I have preached this season,” Witham said. “They do a great job of working as a team and they really don’t ever hang their heads. It’s a great group of kids. Like the last time we won (the championship), it’s really about the players you have. They get you where you need to be, and this group of players is great.”

Junior defender Kaitlyn Leonard won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award after leading a defensive unit that allowed just one goal in three games — on a penalty kick in the final.

The Hawks pitched shutouts in the first two rounds to reach the championship match. Alessio netted a hat trick and Gasparri added two goals in a 5-0 win over Ansonia in the quarterfinals Nov. 1, and they struck again by netting all three goals in a 3-0 semifinal win over St. Paul on Nov. 2. Alessio scored both of her goals off Delia Kotsaftis assists, and Paige Letourneau made the assist on Gasparri’s goal.

Woodland snagged the No. 2 seed in the Class S tournament, earning a first-round bye. The Hawks are set to host a second-round match Nov. 10 against Bacon Academy or Wilcox Tech, and a win in that match would allow Woodland to host a quarterfinal Nov. 12.

“It’s going to take persistence,” Alessio said. “We’re going to face tougher teams, but if we push forward, we’ve got a good chance.”

Naugatuck, which suffered a 2-0 loss to St. Paul in the NVL quarterfinals Nov. 1, earned the No. 20 seed in the Class LL tournament and is set to visit No. 13 Ridgefield in the first round Nov. 8. An upset victory would lead to a likely trip to No. 4 Newtown in the second round Nov. 10.