BROCKTON, Mass. ---- The 16th-ranked Massasoit men's soccer team provided head coach Rui Estrela with a memorable birthday present on Saturday, as the Warriors gift wrapped a 1-0 victory over Mercer County in the NJCAA Northeast District Semifinals at Warrior Field.
The win advances the Warriors to the Northeast District Finals against Monroe College on Sunday at 11 a.m. in Brockton. Massasoit (14-4-1) is in search of its first-ever District Championship, which would send the Warriors to the NJCAA Nationals for the first time since 1995.
The game started off quickly, as the visiting Vikings (14-5) saw forward Jared Rogers rifle a shot in the game's first 20 seconds of action, but Massasoit keeper Andre Reis (Fall River) made the outstretched save.
Three minutes later Vangjel Kutulla (Norwood) launched a shot off a deflected attempt by teammate Stephan Teixieira (Brockton), but Mercer goalie Kellen Groover made the stop.
In the 12th minute, Kutulla had another scoring chance, and this time the freshman delivered. Fabio Cula (Brockton) raced down the right side line, and crossed a ball into the box, where Kutulla one-timed a rocket to the back of the net.
"(Vangjel's) goal was perfect," Massasoit head coach Rui Estrela said. "We work on that in practice. Guys taking balls down the line, crossing it first time and just attacking the ball. I thought Fabio did a tremendous job crossing that ball and Val (Vangjel Kutulla) did exactly what we asked him to do by one touching it. It was perfect.
"We scored the goal early and that took a lot of pressure off us. We got the goal and we could really start to play. We created some other opportunities that we didn't finish but that's something we need to turn around for tomorrow because things get tougher the further we go along. Hopefully we can finish better inside the 18 tomorrow."
Leading 1-0, Mercer nearly tied the score in the 26th minute. Off a direct kick from 40 yards out, keeper Reis punched a Viking shot off the cross bar. The deflection was then headed by Mercer's Erick Castro, but Massasoit sweeper William Baah (Fall River) was there on the goal line to head the ball over the net to keep the one-goal lead safe.
Clinging to the 1-0 lead late in the second half, Mercer nearly struck again. In the 84th minute, another Viking shot was saved by the use of Baah's head for another crucial play within the match.
"(Baah's) a tough kid," Estrela said. "We are lucky to have him. He is above and beyond a lot of players. He is so smart, so focused and we are glad we have him for sure. He saved the game for us, saved two goals for us.
"I think at the end we were a little too direct and a little crazy at times and that's where we started putting ourselves under pressure under our own mistakes. Overall I thought the boys worked extremely hard and they deserved this win and we'll take it."
Mercer outshot the Warriors, 19 to 12 in the contest, as the Vikings peppered the Massasoit goal for 13 shots in the second half, with four coming on goal.
Reis finished with five saves in goal, while Baah made two critical stops in the victory.
ELATED ESTRELA: Head coach Rui Estrela celebrated his 41st birthday in style, with the Warriors claiming the 1-0 victory over Mercer County to advance to the district finals.
DISTRICT FINALS: Massasoit advanced to just the second Northeast District Championship game in program history, with the other coming in 2009. The Warriors have never won a district championship.
MONROE COLLEGE MATCHUP: Monroe College defeated Monroe Community College, 2-0, in the nightcap at Warrior Field on Saturday. During the regular season, the Mustangs bested Massasoit 3-0 in Brockton.
ONE-WIN AWAY: Massasoit is just one win away for advancing to the NJCAA National Tournament for the first time since 1995.