By RICH ZALUSKY
Chronicle Assistant Sports Editor
EAST LYME â They were 40 minutes away. Forty minutes from continuing a magical run in the postseason. Forty minutes away from the programâs first CIAC state tournament semifinal appearance since 1999.
That was the situation unfolding late Saturday afternoon as two corner kicks from senior Kaleigh Dale were knocked into the goal by junior Julia Alicea for post-season goals five and six and the E.O. Smith girls soccer team held a 2-1 halftime lead over East Lyme in the Class L quarterfinals.
That first half included sophomore goaltender Rachel Hughes diving to her right to stop a penalty kick 12 Â˝ minutes into the game that kept things scoreless.
Would there be any magic left to come?
That soon evaporated as No. 20 seed East Lyme (11-6-4) scored four times in the second half, including a penalty kick from Karlie Rowe that broke a 2-all tie with 15:28 remaining, as No. 21 E.O. Smith (10-9) saw its run come to an end with a 5-2 quarterfinal loss.
âWe always say once we finish the first half, no matter if weâre ahead or behind, the second half, itâs 0-0,â E.O. Smith first-year coach Gui Estes said.
âThe second half, they took it to us.â
Alivia Catanzaro scored the equalizer for the Vikings 4:41 into the second half and, with the hosts continuing to mount pressure on E.O. Smithâs side of the field over the next 15 minutes, the Panthers were called for a handball in the box following a sequence of three consecutive corner kicks.
Rowe stepped to the line and sent the penalty kick over the head of Hughes to give East Lyme a 3-2 lead in the 65th minute.
Shooting it high was not part of the plan âŚ
âI usually go low and to the left,â Rowe said. âI didnât intend to shoot it high. It just went in.â
Sarah Christensen and Catanazro tacked on insurance goals 80 seconds part over the final 5Â˝ minutes.
âAfter that third goal we kind of just stopped playing,â Estes said. âWe started kicking long balls instead of going back to the basics of our game. Moving the ball around on the ground, finding feet and getting our offense going. We got away from that.â
The tactics used by East Lyme in the second half also were not part of the plan.
E.O. Smith played a 4-3-2-1 formation â something that East Lyme had not seen this season.
It was during her halftime speech when coach Rachel Redding said she looked at the clock with 5:47 remaining that she told her team that she was calling the game a win.
âI think they thought I was crazy,â Redding said. âGuess what? I was right.â
Redding also told them that they were going to change the way they played, going to an over-the-top kick-and-run style rather than their possession-style offense.
âWe talked about putting the ball up and over,â Redding said. âThey all must have thought, âWhat is going on? Did she just say weâre going to start kicking the ball far?â
âThey started to become more and more successful when they saw it was working. With this team, as they see success, they build and get better.â
Redding also told her team no more corner kicks after watching Dale deliver pin-point accuracy in finding Alicea both times for goals as E.O. Smith erased a 1-0 deficit.
Aliceaâs first goal came 55 seconds after Rowe had put East Lyme ahead 1-0.
âKaleigh is really good on set plays,â Estes said. âShe has that powerful foot and has a lot of accuracy on those opportunities.â
East Lyme, in the semifinals for the first time since 2012, will face top-seeded RHAM (18-1) on Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. at Falcon Field in Meriden. Defending Class L champion St. Joseph of Trumbull and Daniel Hand of Madison, seeded third and second, respectively, meet in the other semifinal in West Haven on Wednesday. The final is Saturday at a site and time to be announced.
E.O. Smith came into the season under the leadership of a new coach, Estes, the programâs fourth in the last four seasons, while five sophomores decided to play for their premier teams full-time at the Oakwood Academy Soccer.
The Panthers struggled to a 1-4 record through the first five games with two of those losses against RHAM and Enfield, two rivals in the Central Connecticut Conference Patriot East Division.
Heading into the state tournament, the Panthers lost to RHAM, Tolland and Enfield in their final three regular-season games.
âThe girls recognized that both myself and Karyn Zlotnick [assistant], as former D-I players [at the University of Connecticut], expect a lot from them,â Estes said. âGoing up against those tough opponents â both early and late â helped us in terms of understanding our intensity and level of play we needed to play at.
âGoing into the tournament it get us well-prepared.â