Sussex Academy boys’ soccer wins first Division II state title

Match goes to penalty kicks; Seahawks down Spartans 2-1
November 19, 2023

The Sussex Academy boys’ soccer team won its first Division II state championship Nov. 18, with a 2-1 win over Saint Mark’s in the finals at Dover High School. 

C.J. Norton, a junior goalkeeper, kicked off the game by stopping a breakaway less than two minutes into play. While Saint Mark’s would score on a penalty kick in the first half, it would be Norton coming through in the clutch to stop a penalty kick at the end of the second overtime and another one in penalty kicks.

“I don't like taking credit for it, because it was just our team. Our team is the one that needs to get the credit,” Norton said.

Sussex Academy needed to battle a fierce wind in the first half that saw clears and goal kicks linger in the air before retreating back a few yards or soaring out of bounds. Saint Mark’s had a distinct advantage during the first 40, particularly on senior Brendan Walsh’s booming kicks. The Spartans attack earned a penalty kick just under 15 minutes into the game. Senior Matthew Cox converted to give Saint Mark’s a 1-0 lead they took into halftime.

With the wind at their backs, the Seahawks came out with renewed energy and focus to begin the second half. Seniors Ethan Couch and Joseph Herrera Gomez frequently inserted themselves into 50/50 balls at midfield to keep the ball in the Seahawks' offensive half. Couch said after the Woodbridge Senior Night game that his favorite memory of Sussex Academy soccer was yet to be made.

With just under seven minutes to go, Seahawks junior McKenna Danahy forced an error inside the box on a corner, resulting in a penalty kick for Sussex Academy. Senior Andree Mendoza-Martinez, who scored the game-winner in the semifinals, stepped up to the mark and tied up the championship.

“You have to keep going. I knew we were down, but you just have to keep fighting. We got a PK and that got us back into the game,” Mendoza-Martinez said.

Four minutes into the first overtime, Mendoza-Martinez shot like a rocket down the field and fired a rocket of his own at the right upper 90. Senior Ryan Betts leaped up just in time to direct the ball away and keep the game going.

With four minutes left in the second overtime, a handball in the box led to a Saint Mark’s penalty kick. 

“That one is funny because I knew where he was going. I had studied film this whole past week. Six out of six times in the past few games he went to that same spot. My coach said trust your gut and go,” Norton said

As the final whistle blew, both teams congregated at the center of the field to prepare for penalty kicks that would decide the Division II championship. 

“I truly believed he was gonna make the save. He’s the best keeper in the state – he might be the best keeper in the region,” said Sussex Academy coach R.J. Dina. “He's gonna go play Division I somewhere. What else can you say about that kid's ability to compete and be the best? He is the best.” 

Saint Mark’s went first in PKs and kicked off the round with a goal. Mendoza-Martinez answered the call yet again to make it 1-1. The Spartans, however, could not duplicate their first-round success and Norton came through yet again with a save. 

Junior Aidan Villar put Sussex Academy up 2-1 after the second round. 

Sophomore Liam Stegall, sporting a limp, and senior Ethan Boladas also converted on their tries for the Seahawks following a pair of Spartans successes, putting the game on the foot of sophomore George Sapna after Saint Mark’s made its fourth and final penalty kick. 

“I had a conversation with coach Dina a few weeks ago. I’m the top goal scorer, so he wanted me to be the last penalty taker,” Sapna said.

The sophomore buried the shot to clinch Sussex Academy’s first Division II state championship in the program’s young history with a 2-1 victory following the 5-4 PK shootout. 

“It's amazing. You can't even put it into words. You've worked so hard to prepare, and for the end of the season to come down to pens, there are no words. I'm speechless. These guys work so hard and I just can't be any happier for them,” Dina said.

Sussex Academy joins Indian River as the only two downstate Delaware soccer programs to have won a Division II state championship.


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