By RICH ZALUSKY
Chronicle Assistant Sports Editor
MERIDEN â€” The last opportunity â€” a free kick with less than 10 seconds remaining â€” was sent into the box by senior Larson Richards.
It resulted in the final dose of frustration with Masuk senior goalie Sam Forsythe catching the ball as the clock ticked down towards zero.
Richards dropped to the turf at Falcon Field in stunned disbelief while Cooper Knecht and Will Toomey, seconds after the conclusion, embraced with reality staring them right in the face.
For the second consecutive season, things ended for the E.O. Smith boys soccer team one step away from the state championship finals.
Ryan Hodska scored the only goal of the match with 14:04 remaining in the first half and it stood up the rest of the way as top-seeded E.O. Smith (19-1) was dealt its first loss of the season with a 1-0 setback to No. 4 Masuk (20-2-1) in the CIAC Class L state tournament semifinals.
"We've never had a season like this â€¦ never been so dominant for 19 games and lost," E.O. Smith coach John Blomstrann said. "It's a shock to the system just because of how well we played for so long. We really didn't think we could get shut out this year and we did."
The last time the Panthers were shut out in a game was on September 21, 2016 against Plainville in a scoreless draw.
E.O. Smith had several chances to gain an equalizer in the second half.
The best sequence came in the first five minutes when Forsythe dove to his right to make a save following a scramble after a corner kick from Richards. Knecht collected the loose ball, turned and hit a shot that ricocheted off the inside of the near post and off the crossbar.
Later, Owen Stacey sent a pair of balls from the outside toward the middle of the field that Knecht was able to get a head on. The first went just wide with the second high over the bar and into the netting behind the end line.
"We were sort of trusting that we would get enough chances to score a goal and we probably did," Blomstrann said.
Hodska nearly opened the scoring midway through the first half on a free kick from 40 yards that E.O. Smith keeper Dylan Pallanck (5 saves) was able to catch after nearly mis-timing his jump.
That changed about five minutes later when Stephen Murray sent a pass that found Hodska making a strong run down the middle of the field that he sent into a wide-open net in the 26th minute.
"No oneâ€™s indestructible," Mausk coach Antonio Viscuso said. â€œThey saw that when we got that first goal that we cut them. We said that now we have that confidence that we can take this team."
Masuk had a little bit of added motivation.
It was 366 days earlier, on November 12, 2016, when the Panthers journeyed to Storrs for a Class L quarterfinal that ended with E.O. Smith rolling to a 7-0 victory.
Forsythe gave up all seven goals.
"All year we've been waiting for this," Forsythe said. "This was our revenge match. Our game plan was to stop Cooper. He's a great player. We held our cool, stayed composed and it held up."
Forsythe, along with defensive backs Matt Machan, Max Mastrorocco, Aidan McShane and Zach McCollum, comprise what Viscuso refers to as Masuk's LOD â€” Legion of Doom.
"I say to them, 'LOD, go to workâ€™," Visucso said. "They go to work every single game. They proved formidable on this night breaking up several offensive waves from E.O. Smith on a number of occasions throughout the match.
"Give them all the credit," Blomstrann said. "They were there to break up things when we tried to play balls through. They definitely deserved to go on to the final."
Masuk, which advanced to its first state final in program history, will meet No. 10 Daniel Hand of Madison, a 1-0 winner over No.3 Guilford, in the Class L championship game on Saturday.
"It's indescribable for words," Forsythe said. "We worked so hard this season and to finally achieve that for our town, school and everyone â€¦ it's amazing."
Knecht, who has committed to play at Fairfield University, finished his career with a school-record 104 goals. His 46 goals this season were one shy of the single-season program mark set by Pete Chartschlaa in 1967.
E.O. Smith scored 87 goals this season and, coming into the game, had out-scored its tournament opponents by a 13-1 margin.
That all went â€˜poofâ€™ as the Panthers were denied an opportunity for their first appearance in the state final since 1998.
"If we would have won it all, you would have to consider this group as the best one we've ever had," Blomstrann said. "You can't do that until you win a state championship."