Middletown, Xavier meet with spot in Class L boys soccer final on the line

The Falcons and Blue Dragons, who share the same ZIP code, haven't met on the pitch since 1987

Although Middletown and Xavier high schools share a ZIP code, they are far apart in a sports setting. The last matchup between the Blue Dragons and Falcons occurred on the football field nine years ago this Thanksgiving.

This lack of a meaningful relationship in athletics pumps all the more intrigue into their upcoming encounter in the CIAC Class L boys soccer tournament. A spot in the championship game will be on the line when the second-seeded Falcons (17-2-2) and No. 6 Middletown (16-4-2) tangle in the semifinals on Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) at New Britain’s Veterans Stadium.

“This game is certainly great for soccer fans in the city of Middletown,” Blue Dragons coach Sal Emanuele said. “We respect Xavier and what they’ve accomplished. We’ll be going in with confidence and certainly give it our best. May the best team from Middletown win. The atmosphere is going to be great.”

Xavier is negotiating familiar terrain, having reached the semifinal round for the second straight year (Class LL in 2021). Middletown’s only state semifinal appearance during the Blue Dragon era (1984-present) came in 2001. Xavier hasn’t played for a title since its 1995 Dave Sizemore-coached team beat Simsbury for the Class LL crown.

“It was never a situation where we said ‘We’ve gotta get back, we’ve gotta get back,’” said coach Brian Fitzgerald, whose ’21 Falcons lost to Cheshire on penalty kicks. “We’ve taken it one game at a time. We had a few key returning players and a lot of young guys who have stepped up this year. It’s been great to see. They play for one another and have bought into what we’ve been coaching with them from day one.”

Fitzgerald was a freshman and Emanuele a sophomore on that squad. They would reconnect again as players at Eastern Connecticut State. Emanuele’s assistant Geoff Zimmitti also was their teammate at Eastern.

In Middletown, they have taken note of the other’s success this season from afar. On the bus ride home after beating Bethel 1-0 in the quarterfinals, Emanuele and his team watched the livestream of Xavier’s 2-0 win over Pomperaug.

“Normally we don’t even think about Xavier because they’re (historically) a Class LL team,” Emanuele said, “but since the players first saw the bracket and realized Xavier was on the same side, Xavier has been on the radar and what potentially a matchup in the semifinals could be. They’ve talked throughout about it.”

Fitzgerald has taken a measured approach with the Falcons.

“I told them (Saturday), ‘Look, your focus is on the game, not the social media and stuff that you high school kids do. We have a game to play. The focus should be on beating a team. You can’t get involved in all the extracurricular stuff. There’s a game and a mission and we have to take care of business.’”

Middletown and Xavier mirror each other in a couple of respects, starting with their all-conference stars in the middle. Junior Mario Milardo scored both Falcon goals, including the winner early in overtime from a Jaden Behm feed, as Xavier won its second straight Southern Connecticut Conference title. With 14 goals this season, Milardo eased into the role his brother John, now playing at Nichols College as a freshman, owned last year.

“Mario ultimately played for Oakwood (and not Xavier) last year, which was good for him and his development,” Fitzgerald said, “but coming in this year he knew he’d be that guy in the middle taking over for his brother. He’s in the middle running things and often our spark plug. He seems to be everywhere.”

For Middletown, senior Marshall Butler blossomed last season with 20 goals and has been “outstanding as a leader on and off field” this fall, Emanuele said, with 28 goals in 22 matches.

“He’s the key reason as to why we’ve had the success we’ve had,” the coach said. “He’s also helped out in the midfield and if he didn’t, he would have scored more. He’s held in high regard by his teammates, coaches and opposing coaches.”

The Falcons and Blue Dragons are playing their best soccer since early-season defeats. Xavier has won 18 straight matches since a lackluster performance in a 2-1 loss to Notre Dame of West Haven on Oct. 3.

“We hit a rut midway through the season, sat down and talked it out,” Fitzgerald said. “The kids took it upon themselves to make it better. I asked them, ‘What’s our purpose? Are we content just going through the motions. Do we just want to be a .500 team, or do we want to compete for (bigger) things?’”

Two of Middletown’s four losses have come against Class LL powerhouse Hall. Hall is considered one of the very best teams in the state with UConn-bound Lucas Almeida, an All American forward and the state’s player of the year in 2021, but the Titans needed an OT goal to overcome the Blue Dragons in the championship game of the Central Connecticut Conference tournament.

“We played them in the regular season (2-1 defeat) and they’re one of those teams that they have a player who’s special enough to change the way we play,” Emanuele said. “We made an attempt to shut him down and I thought we were successful doing that most of the way. To compete with that type of team instilled confidence in the players and shows we can compete with anybody.

“We didn’t win, but (the CCC final) could have gone either way, and psychologically it sets you up for success down the line. We feel we can play with any team in the state. We will play the way we know how to play and we won’t let the magnitude of the moment get to us. We’ll play our game and do our best whether it’s against Xavier or anyone else.”

Said Fitzgerald: “(The semifinal) is a big hurdle. Hopefully we get past this last hump to the final. It would be a big relief to get past this game.”

The last time Xavier and Middletown met on the pitch? During the 1987 season, as part of the Mayor's Trophy competition, which included Vinal Tech. Xavier beat Middletown 5-0.