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Thetford Boys Soccer Team Advances On PKs

— “Get down.” “Stay up.” Taken out of context, two seemingly very different pieces of advice. In the context of Thetford’s thrilling penalty kick win over top-ranked People’s Academy yesterday afternoon, however, two pieces that could not have come together to form a more perfect fit.

After 110 minutes of competitive, spirited and quality play left the teams in a 1-1 deadlock, No. 5 Thetford advanced to tomorrow’s Vermont Division III championship game with a 3-1 edge in penalty kicks over the No. 1 Wolves.

Senior midfielder Aidan Cleaves provided two pieces of clutch, clinical— and also very different— finishing to lead the Thetford attack, and sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Gray was near-perfect in the penalty shootout, cleanly saving the first three penalties that he faced, and getting a hand on the fourth.

“I should have had them all,” a smiling Gray said after the game. “I got a good piece of that last one.” The goalkeeper’s secret?

“Get down,” he said. “Just get down. I was having a real hard time in practice with penalty kicks — I probably saved two or three out of about 40 — and Coach (Thetford’s Simon Mayo) told me I just had to get down and get after them.” Gray used a similar approach in saving PA’s first three penalty kicks, and in nearly saving its fourth: a jab step to his right as the shooter approached the ball, followed by a power step and full-dive to his left.

“I wasn’t reacting, I was guessing,” Gray said. “I tried to give them a little movement to think about, and then made my decision and went with it.” The game played out evenly over the course of regulation and overtime, with a number of shifts in momentum and rhythm. Thetford (11-6) finished with a slight 13-11 edge in shots on target, while Peoples (12-3-2) held a slim 8-7 edge in corners.

Thetford got off to an excellent start, earning four corner kicks in the first 15 minutes. The Panthers’ third corner resulted in a Dominic Chatot shot from 12 yards out that was deflected just enough to hit the top of the crossbar, and Kit Norton’s ensuing corner forced Wolves’ keeper Alex Duca to make a very difficult tip save at the back post.

According to Thetford’s Mayo, the start was a far cry from the Panthers’ previous visit to Peoples, a 3-0 loss on Oct. 13.

“We just didn’t get off the bus last time,” the coach, who emphasized the importance of the match’s first five minutes to his team during his pre-game talk, said. “Twenty minutes in and we were already playing catch up. Today, we did a good job out of the blocks. We were ready to play.” Much of Thetford’s steady first-half performance was keyed by the well-organized back four of Michael Zack, Cole Eastman, Andrew Cawley and Neil Howard. Rarely, if ever, did longer passes land behind the back line, and when balls were served from the flanks, the defensive unit was well positioned to deal with the danger.

“We knew from last time that they liked to attack from the flanks,” Thetford’s Norton said. “Our defense was really focused on taking that away from them.” Cleaves scored the game’s opening goal in the 32nd minute, receiving Ian Weider’s square pass from the left sideline, taking a preparation touch, and unleashing a dipping, left-footed, 25-yard rocket that left Duca no chance in the Peoples’ goal.

“I was kind of surprised that I was able to take a couple of touches there,” Cleaves said. “But they backed off a bit and I was open enough to be able to shoot.” Peoples responded with its best stretch of play to close the first half, and the momentum carried through the break. In the 41st minute, an Owen Fellows cross was volleyed wide of the right post by Danny Stames, and less than a minute later, a Fellows corner was headed over the bar by Brandon Lanphear.

The Wolves’ pressure finally paid off in the 49th minute, when a Fellows direct kick from the left edge of the penalty area hooked inside the far right post to even the game at 1-1.

Instead of retreating into a shell, however, Thetford responded with tight defending at the back line, active midfield play and number of dangerous counter attacking sequences.

“Coach told us at halftime that there were more goals to come in the game, for both teams,” Norton said. “He told us that even if we conceded one, that we needed to stay up. That we needed to keep playing.” While penalty kicks never seemed inevitable — Peoples’ Fellows was a constant, and very real, threat to score, Thetford’s Weider found space behind the Wolves back line a handful of times to deliver dangerous crosses, and Cleaves came inches from bending one in to the upper left corner in the second overtime — neither were they a surprise.

Thetford won the toss and elected to shoot first, and after both Duca and Gray made saves in the shootout’s first round, Norton and Weider buried back-to-back chances for a 2-0 Thetford lead. Thetford’s Matt Perry skimmed a shot just outside the left post in round four, but after Peoples’ Seppe Angione kept the Wolves alive with a well-struck effort, Cleaves confidently stepped up and buried the clincher.

If Thetford’s recent penalty-related heartbreak was on his mind — the Panthers lost on penalties in the quarterfinal round in each of the past two seasons — Cleaves ably cast such thoughts aside.

“Just go where I always go,” the left-footer said, when asked about his approach to the potential game winner. “Treat it just like practice.” Thetford will meet No. 7 Stowe, which defeated Rivendell in other semifinal on Wednesday, in tomorrow’s title match. Stowe defeated Thetford 1-0 in their only regular-season meeting.