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Benefield: Middletown girls soccer celebrating hard-won NCS title

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When a friend of Lamont Kucer’s saw the video, he couldn’t believe it.

It wasn’t that Kucer’s Middletown High girls soccer team had won the North Coast Section Division 1 title Saturday afternoon after pulling off an improbable run through the playoffs. It was that Kucer was seen, after the final whistle blew, bolting across the field in sheer delight.

“A guy I work with said, ‘I didn’t even know you could run,’” Kucer said. “Our kids were just going crazy.”

Junior midfielder Sophie Kucer, she of 51 goals on the season, broke down and cried.

“We weren’t supposed to do this,” Lamont Kucer said. “It was emotional for us.”

It’s hard to imagine a team having to travel a tougher road to a section title.

The Mustangs got the No. 5 seed, which immediately forced them to stare down the barrel of a vicious bracket. If the Mustangs wanted to win the thing, they would have to beat three teams — all on the road, all of which had beaten them earlier in season: No. 4 Roseland University Prep, top seed Fortuna and No. 3 Arcata.

For historical context, consider this: RUP beat Middletown 2-1 on Aug. 27, Fortuna beat the Mustangs 2-1 two days later and on Sept. 7, Arcata downed them 4-0.

Lamont Kucer said he never second-guessed his decision to load his preseason with tough foes — foes good enough to hand the Mustangs their only losses of the season.

“I would rather know what they look like and take a loss,” he said. “I don’t think it hurts you in the seeding too much as long as you beat who you are supposed to beat.”

Besides, getting a taste of what Fortuna and Arcata bring early in the season helped the Mustangs prepare late — when it mattered.

“You have to know what is coming later on,” Lamont Kucer said.

But did those early losses and a No. 5 seed in the playoffs sow doubt? Maybe in everyone but the Mustangs themselves.

“I definitely expected to have a better seed. I definitely thought we would have a home game,” Sophie Kucer said. “But we played like we had nothing to lose. We played like we thought it was going to be our last game.”

Getting denied a home playoff game was huge. The Mustangs have a thing about their field. It’s natural grass with the nasty crown and rugged surface that only a Mustang could love.

So they took their disgruntlement out on everyone they faced. Still, they had an uphill climb, not all of which was on the soccer field.

Their starting goalkeeper, junior Leslie Chairez, was lost to injury about four weeks ago. Lamont Kucer was not planning for that.

But up stepped Emily Maccario, a second-string forward who hadn’t played goalkeeper since the sixth grade.

“She’s got good size, she’s tall, long arms, and it was, ‘Well, you know what? Let’s try to train her,’” Lamont Kucer remembers thinking.

Maccario, for her part, remembers thinking this: “I was like the backup backup. I’m the tallest one on the team, so they threw me in there.”

Just how tall is Maccario? Five feet, six inches. Not exactly a skyscraper.

“She said, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever you need, coach,’” Lamont Kucer said. “She’s that kid.”

With Chairez at every practice helping train her replacement, Maccario got up to speed. In the championship game, Maccario notched 16 saves, her coach said.

“I loved playing goalie. It was fun to get back into the experience,” Maccario said, before adding, “It was also a little nerve-wracking.”

She earned high praise from her team.

“She is obviously a bit new to it and everything and she just really stepped it up,” Sophie Kucer said. “(Maccario) had like one of our best games.”

Another game changer? Center back Zamora Rogers.

“Without her, honestly, I don’t think we could have won. She stopped so many goals,” Sophie Kucer said. “They had a lot of chances they could have scored; when we couldn’t get back, she was the only one who could catch them. Not only is she fast, she is majorly aggressive.”

And that little chip on her shoulder might have been a bit weightier Saturday night because it was in the Mustangs’ first game against Arcata — that painful 4-0 loss — that Rogers broke her hand and ended up sitting out a bunch of games.

“She was able to keep everybody in check,” Lamont Kucer said. “They got by her a couple of times but she’d catch them. She said, ‘Don’t worry, coach, I’ll get ’em.’”

And she helped keep the newcomer in goal a little bit calmer.

“Zamora is our fastest defender and player,” Maccario said. “It means I won’t have to get down faster, I’ll have time to prepare myself and it’s most likely she will always stop it before it gets to me.”

Rogers and the rest of the defense did a lot of stopping. They shut out an Arcata team that was averaging four goals per game. And after Sophie Kucer netted her 51st goal of the season (you read that right) about eight minutes into the second half, everyone went into lockdown mode.

“Everybody defends now, everyone defends,” Lamont Kucer remembers telling his players. They did.

After traveling nearly 1,000 miles to play three road games over seven days to earn their first title since 2012 — when the Mustangs played in Division 3 — the Middletown team that scored 115 goals this season needed just one to win it all.

At halftime, Lamont Kucer remembers telling his team, “‘Listen, we didn’t come all of the way up here to have it go into a penalty shootout or lose. We need to make something happen.’”

For the 51st time this season, Sophie Kucer did — and in the biggest shutout of the season, the defense did, too. And after it all, Lamont Kucer ran.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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