Gonzalaiz Arakaza had no varsity experience at the start of the 2020 season.
Goalie Theodore Schulman had no soccer experience period.
But both of them proved invaluable when it truly mattered for the Burlington High School boys soccer team.
Schulman’s mistake-free performance included an alert save in the opening minute while Arakaza turned the outskirts of Buck Hard Field into a SeahorseNation party with a sizzling overtime finish as No. 5 Burlington outlasted third-seeded Essex 1-0 in the D-I title game on Saturday afternoon.
It was Burlington’s first crown since 2016.
“I said I was going to do big things this season. I said I was going to bring the championship back — and I did it,” Arakaza said. “I’m just so happy I was able to play for this amazing, talented team.”
“It’s just an unreal feeling. You don’t know how it’s going to feel until now. It’s really amazing,” Schulman said in his interview with TV reporters.
The winning sequence, in the ninth minute of the extra period, came in a flash.
Taking a throw-in near the BHS bench, Manoj Karki dribbled between his legs to get around two defenders and then unfurled a curling cross toward goal that took a slight deflection off an Essex player’s head and onto the foot of a cutting Arakaza, who redirected top corner to clinch the title.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s a workhorse and that was a perfect goal,” BHS coach Fran Demasi said. “Today he won 50-50 balls and he busted his butt up and down the flanks and he was rewarded with a great goal in the end.”
Behind the Essex net, throngs of BHS students — capacity in the stands was limited due to COVID-19 guidelines — hooted and hollered, pressed against a fence as players rushed to join them.
“I was very excited when I scored and I didn’t know what to do,” Arakaza said. “They took the time to come today and support us, even during a pandemic. They all came to watch our game. I was happy to do something for them. I was happy to bring a big impact to our team.”
Yet that wasn’t the only game-ending celebration Saturday.
Three minutes earlier, Essex appeared to score the walk-off winner but the assistant referee raised his flag to call a push in the back by an Essex player in the box. Adding to the confusion, the center official initially signaled game over.
“I was just sitting there, ‘Wow, this is how our season ends,'” said Sam Hogg, the Burlington central defender fouled on the play. “But luckily the side ref was paying attention.”
Said Schulman: “I was talking to (my teammates) … ‘We lost the state championship for five seconds. I think we felt how it feels and we can’t do that again.'”
On the call, Aidan Nick’s throw-in soared into the 6-yard box, over Hogg, who hit the turf from a push from behind. Then Matt Correia headed the ball into the back of the net, the Essex bench emptying onto the field thinking it had won.
“It is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Essex coach Jake Orr said. “It’s not my job to comment on whether it was right or wrong, but I’ll tell you from perspective as a coach, to have your team run on the field like they have won a state championship only to be told they haven’t — it’s a pretty rough feeling.Get the News Alerts newsletter in your inbox.
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“There’s nothing I can say to the kids to make that feel any better.”
If the final minutes were ones to forget for the Hornets — so were game’s opening minutes.
The Hornets (9-2) applied immediate pressure from the kickoff. Patrick Herrin settled a cross and uncorked a half-volley that required Schulman, a hockey player, to swat over the crossbar.
A starter earlier this season, Schulman had been reinserted into the starting lineup only after Harrison Diebold went down with an injury in Friday’s practice.
“That’s exactly what we wanted him to do. He’s good with his hands,” Demasi said of Schulman. “It’s great that he could step in, a kid who’s never played soccer before and win a state championship — he was a big part of it.”
The ensuing corner nearly erased Schulman’s save: Stefan DiGangi, Essex’s leading scorer, rattled the bar with a close-range header. Minutes later, Eli Bostwick raced to the back post to track down a restart cross, but couldn’t square it up, nodding it wide.
“It was great to come out hot like that, but then you are thinking what if we buried one of those,” Orr said. “At the same time, it was so early, you don’t know what would’ve happened — you still had 75 minutes left.
“It was a great high school soccer game — it feels horrible to be on the losing end again,” added Orr, whose Hornets also lost to BHS in the 2016 final.
Once the Seahorses settled down, they dictated large stretches with possession, Arakaza, Karki and Nolan Simon among the most effective in the midfield, while Jake Manley tested Essex goalie Andrew Seavers (seven saves) in dangerous spots.
Manley’s trap-and-run down the right side in the final 2 minutes of the half needed a Seavers’ point-blank stop atop the box to keep the game scoreless at the break.
Burlington finished with advantages in shots (20-9) and corners (7-3). And Essex’s best scoring opportunity of the second half, 22 minutes in, Schulman (three saves) stepped forward again.
The senior goalie came off his line to break-up hard-charging DiGangi, who had slipped behind the BHS defense on a give-and-go chip with Correia.
And when overtime arrived, Arakaza made his mark for Burlington (10-2-2).
“I had an adrenaline rush. Everybody was out of breath and we were all counting on each other,” Arakaza said.
With 2016 stars Seraphin Iradukunka and Bienfait Badibanga on the BHS sideline, among other alums, Saturday’s return to glory was a chance to offer remembrance for teammate Christian Kibabu, who died in 2017. And Kibabu’s brother, Kelvin, is a member of this year’s BHS squad.
“When Christian died, it was very heartbreaking,” Arakaza said. “A lot of stuff was going through my head and I said I’m going to score this goal for him.”
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Alex AbramiBurlington Free Press