Sometimes how far a team goes in the high school boys soccer playoffs comes down to a matter of inches.
Had Michael Guzzone’s shot been a few inches lower, Shoreham-Wading River would have bagged an equalizing goal and who knows what beyond that? Instead, the Wildcats were left to wonder “what if?” as they trudged off to their bus for the ride home, contemplating the end to their 2021 season.
A fine first-half strike by Stefan Nikolic stood up as the only goal in Harborfields’ 1-0 Suffolk County Class A quarterfinal victory over SWR Friday.
“I thought, given the circumstances, that we played to the best of our ability,” said SWR’s Dan Canellys, who played outside back and some striker. “I mean, usually we like playing on turf where we can play a little bit more of our game; we’re technical. But, you know, we just didn’t come out and they were a good team and, you know, we just couldn’t get it done.”
In the end, the hard-fought, scrappy affair, played under a gray sky and drizzling rain at Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, was decided by Nikolic’s goal 29 minutes, 45 seconds into the game. Jude Callan dropped the ball for Nikolic, who nailed an accurate right-footed shot to the low, left corner. It was a quality goal.
“My striker laid it off to me, and no one’s stepping to me, so I took the shot and hit it for the corner,” said the senior midfielder.
Did he think that would stand up as the only goal of the game?
“I was hoping so because we didn’t get much more chances after that,” said Nikolic, whose third-seeded team will play No. 2 Amityville or No. 7 Sayville in a semifinal Wednesday.
No. 6 SWR (10-3) urgently pushed forward as time was winding down in the second half. The Wildcats nearly got what they were looking for when Guzzone met a pass from Canellys with a venomous first-time strike that dipped and crashed off the crossbar with 12:25 left to play.
“My heart dropped,” Nikolic said of the sight of that shot as it headed toward the goal, “but we were able to get back and clear it before they got the rebound.”
SWR coach Rob Mancuso said: “It’s a great shot, and he hits it well. You know, if he’s maybe a foot more out and the wind’s blowing different, it goes in. It’s just the game.”
The next-best scoring chance after that came off a Harborfields boot. Callan found Andrew Wallace, who slipped a shot that goalkeeper William Devall was able to stop. Devall and his counterpart, Ryan Steel, made three saves each. It was Harborfields’ seventh shutout of the year.
Harborfields (8-2-1) saw a golden opportunity early in the match when Devall nicely swatted a drive over the crossbar.
In the second half, a free kick by SWR’s Connor Guercia from just inside the midfield line swerved and forced Steel to push the ball over the crossbar.
“They’re a good team, but we played hard and came out on top,” Nikolic said. “It was a great team effort. Everyone defended hard. Everyone attacked together, and it’s a team sport, so everyone played together.”
Goals were hard to come by on this day. With the ball skipping on the wet grass field, play was treacherous. SWR, which plays its home games on field turf, had practiced on a grass field in the days leading up to the game.
“We were almost forced to flip our game on its head,” said Canellys, one of SWR’s 13 seniors. “Usually we play little, short passes leading up to the goal and breaking down the defense, and we weren’t able to do that here.”
When it ended, the Harborfields bench charged onto the field to celebrate with their black-shirted teammates. SWR was left to think about a season that was.
“I thought it was a well-fought game,” Mancuso said. “I thought my guys played hard to the very last buzzer. I had no complaints. If that’s the way you’re going to go out, then that’s the way I want to go out, fighting tooth and nail to the last second of the game.”