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Amherst beats Leominster, advances to state soccer final

Leominster goalkeeper Rondinelle DePaula makes a save off a header by Amherst's Erik Schleeweis, right, as teammate Mathias Cotto, center, helps out, in a Division 1 State Semi-final, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.   (STEVE LANAVA/T&G Staff Photo)

Leominster goalkeeper Rondinelle DePaula makes a save off a header by Amherst's Erik Schleeweis, right, as teammate Mathias Cotto, center, helps out, in a Division 1 State Semi-final, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. (STEVE LANAVA/T&G Staff Photo) Purchase photo reprints »

BOLTON — It didn’t take penalty kicks this time for the Amherst Regional boys soccer team to make more history.

Brandon Vazquez scored in the 56th minute of the state Division 1 semifinals for a 1-0 victory over Leominster Wednesday night at Nashoba Regional.

“This is the state semis, so of course this was my biggest goal,” Vazquez said. “It was great to get it and get this win.”

The Hurricanes will play in the program’s first state title game Friday night at Worcester State at 7:30 p.m. against Needham (20-1-3).

“We’re just making history right now,” said Vazquez, a junior, whose team won its first sectional title Sunday against Ludlow in penalty kicks. “Hopefully we can win Friday and then keep it going next year.”

Amherst (12-2-5) dominated for 80 minutes and had strong scoring chances throughout, but the game went into halftime scoreless.

After a handful of near-misses, the Hurricanes finally broke through when Erik Schleeweis sent a pass to Vazquez, who took a touch to settle 25 yards out and another short one to skip the ball through a pair of defenders. He then raced passed a pair of Blue Devils (9-6-7) to the ball, forced goalkeeper Rondinelle DePaula (10 saves) out of the box and then flicked the ball easily into the left corner of the net.

“Where we’ve had him this year, I don’t think he’s scored as many goals as he could,” senior defender Jaimon Olmstead said of the central midfielder, who has a host of responsibilities in the middle of the field. “Recently, he’s been a part of the offense, but we just haven’t gotten the ball in the net. But you’re never surprised to see that play. He takes a couple guys on and you always expect him to make that play.”

Amherst didn’t pack it in from there, staying on the attack for the remainder of the game and keeping Leominster with very few offensive chances.

“We’ve tried that other route, falling back and containing, but it’s not in our DNA,” Amherst coach Michael Rudd said. “That’s not our system. We tried to stick to our principles, which is playing attacking soccer. That’s what we continued to do.”

The Hurricanes appeared to double their lead 15 minutes later when a rocket off Vazquez’s left foot seemed to hit underneath the left side of the crossbar, but was deemed not to have crossed the line before kicking back out.

Leominster had two chances on restarts deep in Amherst territory in the final two minutes, but didn’t put the ball on net either time.

Goalkeeper Curtis Barnes made two saves for the shutout, which extended the Hurricanes’ playoff shutout streak to four games. Overall, it marked the team’s eighth clean sheet in nine games.

“I think the key was that we held the ball,” Rudd said. “Holding the ball is really the best defense. If they can’t get the ball, they can’t attack. Their attack for the most part was a counterattack. They have some nice players on the team, but for the most part we were able to possess the ball and that’s the easiest kind of defense.”

All that possession led to loads of scoring opportunities and the Hurricanes hit the crossbar and outside net four times over the course of the game.

The team had headers at or around the box four times in the first 18 minutes. Two of those came on the same play when a Cody Baglow fip throw found Olmstead in front. Olmstead’s header hit the cross bar and bounced to Schleeweis, who headed it just over the frame.

“I hit the bar in the first half and you think about how you could have done something different and it goes in,” Olmstead said. “I don’t want to lose the game and think back to that (chance), but finally we got one.”

The Hurricanes thought they got their first one in the 24th minute when another Baglow flip throw found Olmstead in front. This time, Olmstead’s header was under the bar and hit a Leominster defender in the chest as he was backing into the goal. The Blue Devils quickly cleared it and play went on.

“It was in. As far as I’m concerned, that was in,” Olmstead said. “I thought when he cleared it away, he was in the goal and the ball was in, too. But we moved on and kept working.”

Less than three minutes later, Vazquez, widely considered one of the best players in western Mass., gave Amherst all the scoring to make some more history.

“We had a lot shots. We knew it was coming,” Vazquez said. “Our shots were on target, too, so we knew it was coming, but it was nice when it finally did.”

Jim Pignatiello can be reached at jpignatiello@gazettenet.com.

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