STRATFORD—Making the South-West Conference playoffs after going 1-15 last season would be an impressive turnaround, but the Bunnell boys soccer team is in position to do just that.
The Bulldogs climbed to fifth in the SWC standings — just two points out of third — following a 2-1 win Saturday over town rival Stratford at Penders Field.
Derick Celestin and Nicholas Polica caused problems for the Red Devils with their speed and each scored in a five-minute span early in the second half for the Bulldogs, who improved to 5-3-3 following their second straight victory.
“It’s a process, it’s changing the culture and getting winning to start to become a habit,” Bunnell coach Joe Baccielo said when asked about the turnaround. “We didn’t play well today but it’s a testament to them that even in games we don’t play well, we’re finding a way to compete and hopefully get the win.”
Thomas Castro got the Red Devils (1-11) on the board when he converted a penalty kick after a hand ball in the box with just under 25 minutes remaining.
The Bulldogs then clamped down defensively and didn’t allow any serious scoring chances in the final 10-15 minutes after Stratford created some opportunities in the first 20 minutes of the second half.
Goalkeeper Owen Jaekle recorded three saves for Bunnell.
”I thought we had most of the possession but they were certainly on the counter attack in the second half and they were able to earn a penalty,” Baccielo added. “They have good athletes up top. If you’re not organized, they can cause problems which they certainly did in the second half.”
With 6:50 left in the first half, Stratford lost starting goalkeeper Justin Forizs, who suffered an abdominal injury when he fell on his stomach during a collision with a Bunnell player in front of the net.
Forizs, who was helped off the field, was replaced by Dylan Richards. The two Stratford goalkeepers combined for five saves.
The Red Devils entered Saturday’s contest having allowed 51 goals in 11 games and were coming off a 7-0 defeat to Weston, so coach Ryan Jockers was encouraged that his team blanked Bunnell in the first half.
All season, however, Stratford has been hurt by allowing goals early in the second half and that again was the case on Saturday.
“I thought it was a fair result,” Jockers said. “We played well in the first half. I thought we were doing some of the things that we’ve been talking about a little bit better. We’ve been talking a lot to them about spatial awareness and making good decisions and being responsible defensively.
“I felt going into the second half that the game was ours but what happened in the second half is what has happened in almost all our games,” the coach added. “Within the first five minutes we give up a goal.”
With 35:25 remaining, the Bulldogs broke through as Michael Perry fed a pass into the box to Celestin, who drill a shot high inside the right crossbar
At the 29:53 mark, Polica scored on a spectacular individual effort as he cut around a Stratford defender and snapped a lowshot inside the right post.
While disappointed in the outcome, Jockers recognized that Saturday’s performance was an improvement from past games for the Red Devils, whose only win was a 1-0 victory over a 10-man Kolbe-Cathedral squad.
“Bunnell has some really fast attackers and they were giving us trouble, but my center defenders played really well against them,” Jockers said. ”I am pleased with the effort they put in today in terms of their work rate. To come in against a much-improved Bunnell team with this result, I’m not miserable.”
The Bulldogs have a huge week ahead with pivotal contests against Newtown (7-5-1) on Tuesday and at Barlow (6-4-2) on Thursday.
Bunnell then hosts Stratford on Saturday in a makeup of a contest that was postponed earlier this week before concluding the regular against Harding in a non-league contest on Oct. 30.
“We’re in the mix,” Baccielo said, “but we have tough games ahead.”
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