STONINGTON — For the first 68 minutes of soccer Saturday, Wheeler High was threatening to spoil Stonington’s first home game ever on Donald E. Palmer’s turf field.
Playing into the wind in the first half, Wheeler’s backfield and goalkeeper Andrew Swift thwarted a handful of quality Bear scoring chances to force a scoreless first half. Playing with the wind in the second half, Wheeler mustered a couple of scoring opportunies but to no avail. Finally in the last 12 minutes, Wheeler just became winded.
The outmanned but valiant Lions held the game scoreless until Stonington peppered the goal late, finally breaking through with two Chris Tsang goals, the first with 12:50 left and the second with 11:46 left, to produce a 2-0 ECC out-of-division victory.
Tsang, a sophomore, comes off the bench. So does junior Matt Prue, who assisted on his second goal. Stonington’s strength in numbers finally caught up to Wheeler, which has just 16 players in its program.
“The depth factor was a big difference today,” Wheeler coach Joe Mendonca said. “I was very happy with our discipline and effort against a Stonington squad which has so many more year-round players than we do.”
Wheeler (0-2) opened its season with a 6-1 loss to Fitch, allowing four goals in the first 15 minutes. The competitive loss to Stonington was a major step forward. Stonington (2-0) opened with a 2-1 win over Ledyard of the ECC Large.
Though Bears’ coach Paul deCastro was disappointed with his team’s tactical precision early, his team’s relentless pressure in the second half paid off and sent the Bears two games over the .500 mark — a step up in class for a program that produced a 1-13-2 record in 2011 and a 4-12 mark last year.
“We’re really excited to be 2-0 and hope to keep it going positive,” deCastro said. “There is a sense of excitement within the program with our fine early start and the fact we’re playing on the turf field. We like it because it creates a faster game and it’s new. It has added energy to our practices and now our games. Overall, the complex is simply great for the school and community.”
Stonington midfielder Leo Aguirre and forward Thomas St. Rock accelerated the Bears’ attack in the last 30 minutes. St. Rock sent a cross from the right flank to the left goal-post, where Jake Delapp just missed a sliding touch into the net with 29:53 to go. Three minutes later, Kyle Gillick passed from the middle to the right side to St. Rock, who dribbled for 20 yards and boomed a 19-yard shot just over the crossbar.
Mendonca was hoping for a counterattack. With 14:44 left, Wheeler’s T.J. Condon had one of the Lions’ few scoring chances when he boomed a 22-yard, left-footed shot over the bar. Previously, Wheeler’s best scoring chance came off Ryan Sylvester’s 45-yard free kick from midfield five minutes into the second half.
Stonington back Ian Kilcoyne’s sliding tackle foiled Condon’s attempt to catch up with the pass eight yards to the left of the left goal-post.
Stonington christened the turf field scoring column with 12:50 left when Aguirre beat his man down the right sideline and sent a perfectly-placed cross to 16-yard line in the middle. Tsang used all of his 5-foot-5 height to head the ball in the middle of the net past a charging Swift, who was too late to the ball.
“I’ve scored on one header in my life before this,” Tsang said. “I was thinking ‘don’t miss this.’ I could see the goalie come out and Leo’s pass was spot-on... perfect.”
A minute later, Prue skidded a pass through a crowd and found Tsang alone for a shot from 12-yards out on the left side. He drilled a shot under Swift inside the right post to make it, 2-0. It was obviously a career day for Tsang, who scored one goal as a freshman last year.
“Chris gave us a big spark,” deCastro said. “One of the advantages we have this year is the ability to bring in some offensive-minded players off the bench. At halftime we were frustrated by Wheeler. Bringing players like Chris, Matt Prue and Ethan Murphy off the bench is a nice addition to the team.”
Stonington outshot Wheeler, 15-3, and held a 3-1 edges in corners. Bears’ keeper Steven Zelepos made two saves, while Swift made four for Wheeler.
The Bears look to go three games over .500 for the first time since deCastro’s first year as coach in 2008 when Stonington plays at East Lyme 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Wheeler seeks its first victory 6 p.m. Tuesday at Windham.