READING — The Reading High boys' soccer team came into the tournament experiencing a scoring slump, but the Rockets ended the four-game scoreless streak in Saturday's MIAA Div. 2 state first round game, getting a goal in the second half to defeat Bedford, 1-0, at Hollingsworth Field.
Ryan Connolly scored on a penalty kick with 13 minutes left in regulation to help Reading advance to the round of 16, where the Rockets will make the 101-mile travel to Longmeadow on Wednesday (5 p.m.).
The game was mostly even throughout, so Reading was fortunate to get the call when it did. There was a very good chance the game would go to overtime, and then all bets are off at that point.
"You have a team like that out of the DCL (Dual County League), one of the better leagues in the state, everybody knows that, so you know they are going to be tough," said Reading coach Dan McGrath. "We checked them out a little bit and we knew, from a formation standpoint, they played a defensive style of soccer."
One thing that was obvious from the outset was the danger of throw-ins from Buccaneers' senior Dylan DiGangi, who had the ability to send the ball high to the far post when he launched one.
"That throw was as dangerous as I've seen in awhile," said McGrath. "It's lethal. I told them on throws you're going to have to bunker in and it's going to be about grit and heart and winning the ball."
After a scoreless first half, where Bedford had slightly more scoring chances, the Bucs came out even more aggressive in the second half, getting a close call off a DiGangi throw in to the goalmouth, and a subsequent corner kick.
The Rockets began striking back towards the middle of the second half, including a Matt Geraghty shot just over the crossbar.
A little later, Bedford goalie James Squire came up with a great save on a nice shot by Alex Cullen.
"We had to be willing to put yourself out there and defend," said McGrath. "Attack when you have the chances, and we did."
It was Cullen who made the play that set up the goal kick. Cullen got the ball at the middle of the 18 and was trying to get through a couple Bedford defenders while moving to the left side, only to be taken down. The officials had little choice but to award the penalty kick to Reading.
Geraghty was supposed to take the kick but he got into a little verbal joust with Squire, and it was Geraghty who was sent off with a yellow card.
The equally potent and reliable Ryan Connolly stepped up and calmly drilled a shot into the right side of the net as Squire dived to Connolly's left, making it 1-0 in the 27th minute of the second half.
"You have to feel good when a guy of Matt's caliber is taken out, and you have a guy of Ryan's caliber who steps right in," said McGrath. "They are two of the better players around."
Bedford took a timeout after the penalty kick to decide how it would attack the rest of the way, and the Rockets took a timeout with five minutes left to safely preserve the 1-0 lead.
The Buccaneers tried hard but Reading, with its lineup healthier than it has been in a couple weeks, was able to dig in and run out the clock.
"Sometimes you have to dig deep and find that level of want," said McGrath. "This team, they deserve it. They deserve every piece of it right now. It was a fun one and it's been awhile since we won."
It was the Rockets first win in the tournament since 2009, with a string of first-game heartbreaks ever since, while also being the first time they have scored after being shut out the last four games.
McGrath was pleased to welcome back striker Michael Harden and defender Erik Roberts back in the lineup. They are two "huge pieces for us."
Reading is going to need all that help come Wednesday when they take the long bus ride to Longmeadow, which destroyed Duxbury, 7-0, in its first round game.