Soccer showdown on the horizon

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Woodland’s Jess Rodrigues (23) runs past Watertown’s Isabella Orsini (14) to gain possession of the ball Oct. 22 in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI
Woodland’s Jess Rodrigues (23) runs past Watertown’s Isabella Orsini (14) to gain possession of the ball Oct. 22 in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

The Naugatuck Valley League is gearing up for a girls soccer showdown this weekend.

The top eight teams in the league will begin tournament play with quarterfinals on Saturday. The semifinals and final are scheduled for Nov. 2 and Nov. 5, respectively, at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury.

Woodland (13-0-1 NVL) is the number one seed. The Hawks have had a target on their backs all year.

“There will be a lot of teams gunning for us that’s for sure,” Woodland head coach Cait Witham said.

The Hawks, who reached the finals last year and the semifinals the year before, finished the regular season with a 5-1 win over Seymour on Thursday.

Woodland will face No. 8 Seymour again in the quarterfinals Saturday at 3 p.m. at Municipal Stadium.

The Hawks have been nothing short of impressive under Witham. Woodland has outscored the opposition by a wide 69-7 margin led by a defense that has produced nine shutouts. Jenna Pannone has been the best keeper in the NVL aided by defenders Shae Geary and Sonia Sousa.

“Defense is our strength and Jenna is the best keeper in the league,” Witham said. “Having two four-year players like Shae and Sonia back there really makes us that much more effective.”

When it comes to scoring the Hawks have a bevy of talent that can find the back of the net. Jess Rodrigues, Hailey Borris and Sam Plasky have provided a consistent threat along with Gillian Hotchkiss, Haley Andrews and Julia Casimiro.

The blemish on Woodland’s record came in a scoreless tie to Wolcott, which served as a wakeup call for the Hawks

“We just need to be aware that in a tournament like this it can be one and done that quickly,” Witham said. “There are a lot of good teams out there and if they come in more focused and with more energy it can be over in a hurry.”

Witham said depth will be key in the tournament.

“But I think the key to our success is being able to go to the bench at any time and not lose an ounce of production out on the field,” she said. “That comes from the talent and skill level from our younger players. They have all contributed in key roles.”

Naugatuck is in a bit of a lull. The Greyhounds started the season 5-1 but dropped seven of the last 10 games as injuries have mounted. Five of those losses were by one goal and two were in overtime.

“We have had our fair share of injuries,” Naugatuck head coach Lisa Mariano said. “I still have faith in this team that we have the talent to see the NVL finals. We just need to keep believing in ourselves and we still have a couple of days to work on getting better.

Naugatuck’s Alyana Sosa (37) defends against Sacred Heart’s Nellie Drewry (5) Tuesday night in Naugatuck. –LUKE MARSHALL
Naugatuck’s Alyana Sosa (37) defends against Sacred Heart’s Nellie Drewry (5) Tuesday night in Naugatuck. –LUKE MARSHALL

“I think our defense has done a phenomenal job at keeping us in games unfortunately the breakdown of our offense hasn’t allowed us to come back in some of the games that we fell behind.”

Naugatuck is heading into the weekend on a high note after earning a 3-0 win over Sacred Heart Tuesday on senior night to improve to 8-6 in league play.

The Greyhounds are the sixth seed in the tournament and will play No. 3 Oxford (10-3-1 NVL) Saturday in Wolcott at 11 a.m.

The Greyhounds have been to the tournament final in six of the last eight seasons. Looking past Naugatuck would be a big mistake for any opponent.

Sophie Boucher has been rock solid in the net for the ‘Hounds with defenders Jasmine Grey, Sophie Marques and Bridget Rosikiewicz forming a strong unit out in front. The scoring abilities of Kyla Magalhaes and Hannah Lauer may be just enough for Naugatuck to advance past an unsuspecting opponent.

Mariano, who is in her first year at Naugatuck, won the past five NVL titles as coach of Watertown. She knows what it takes to bring home the trophy.

“We try and look at the tournament as any other normal game,” she said. “So I think our younger players who have played key roles making a lot of improvement will continue to excel in the tournament. Come tournament time every team is a threat, but Woodland is obviously the team to beat being undefeated and Holy Cross is a very tough and experienced team. It comes down to who comes ready to play.”

The other two games of the tournament will feature No. 2 Holy Cross (11-2-1 NVL) versus No. 7 Watertown (7-6 NVL), and No. 4 Wolcott (9-3-2 NVL) versus No. 5 St. Paul (8-5-1 NVL).