The prevailing wisdom in the BSAL boys’ soccer league is that there are three top teams, and everyone else scraps for wins at the bottom. But that perception is changing with every game St. Joseph’s plays.
The Pilots are 1-3 in league play after losing 2-1 at St. Mary’s on Wednesday, but they have played much better than their record indicates. They lost to league-leading Kennedy earlier this week by just one goal, and St. Mary’s scored their winning goal on Wednesday in injury time. St. Joseph’s head coach Jason Eisele feels his team is ready to take a run at the big boys of the league.
“We’re going to be in the playoffs, and we’re going to do some damage,” Eisele said. “We’re going to upset someone in the playoffs, I promise.”
Eisele’s team plays the last of the big three, Piedmont, on Friday. A St. Joseph’s victory would clinch a first-round playoff bye for St. Mary’s (5-0-1 BSAL) as one of the top two finishers in the BSAL. St. Mary’s will face off against undefeated Kennedy on Friday in a game that will likely determine the regular-season champ.
St. Mary’s head coach Teale Matteson said he wasn’t surprised that the Pilots were able to give his team such a tough game.
“I got a game tape of the St. Joe’s-Kennedy game, and they’re a strong team,” Matteson said. “We knew we were in for a dogfight today.”
Wednesday’s game was a tense, physical affair, as the Pilots came out determined to make their mark. But St. Mary’s had most of the early chances with quick runs down the sidelines for crosses. A Stephon McGrew cross went just over forward Patrick Barry’s head, then McGrew controlled a loose ball in front of the goal, only to hit his shot straight at Pilot goalkeeper Chris Goin. Barry took advantage of a turnover to hit yet another cross, but Goin got just enough of the ball to tip it past an outstretched McGrew.
But once the Pilots got their offense going, they put serious pressure on the tentative St. Mary’s outside defenders. Right fullback Alex Tapp turned the ball over in his own end, and Panther ’keeper Nick Osborne made a fine save on the quick shot by Victor Ramirez, tipping the ball over the crossbar.
But the ensuing St. Joseph’s corner kick spelled disaster for the Panthers. Jeffrey Gonzalez found a wide-open Ian Mason at the near post, and Mason flicked the ball over Osborne to give the Pilots a 1-0 lead in the 31st minute.
The intensity of the game rose from there, with both teams going into tackles and 50-50 balls with abandon. The Pilots stayed on the attack, hitting through balls that Osborne was barely able to corral. St. Mary’s midfielder Zack Huddleston had an open look from a counter-attack, but shot just over the bar.
St. Joseph’s David Gordon had the final opportunity of the half, taking the ball wide and slotting the ball just wide across the goalmouth. Again, the shot came from a St. Mary’s turnover, this time by defender Remik Starkharper.
The Panthers came out of halftime with one thing on their minds: a tying goal. They sent attacks at the St. Joseph’s goal in waves, with Barry and McGrew in the middle of most moves. Barry finally finished a scoring chance in the 42nd minute, taking a clever pass from left fullback Sean Rogan and slipping it calmly past Goin to tie the score.
Barry got another chance two minutes later, breaking free of the defense only to be stopped by an aggressive charge by Goin. Pilot forward Andrew Snider answered with a breakaway of his own, but Osborne made a diving save to keep the score knotted.
McGrew and Barry continued to pepper Goin with shots, but were unable to finish any chances. An over-aggressive Osborne nearly handed St. Joseph’s a go-ahead goal in the 65th minute, charging out of his goal only to have a throw-in sail over his head and across the goal, but no one was home for the Pilots, and the ball trickled meekly into the touchline.
With a minute remaining in regulation, McGrew juked two defenders and was wide open inside the box. But Goin was equal to the task, diving to his left for an outstanding save that could have meant the game.
Barry waited all of a minute to set up McGrew’s next chance. The lanky senior drifted down the left side, then streaked past two Pilot defenders to come free at the baseline. He surveyed the scene in front of him, then hit a grounder just out of Goin’s reach. Forward Kyle Low just missed the ball, but McGrew was at the far post and easily put the ball into the back of the net.
“I felt just wonderful when I scored, but it was a sense of relief too,” Mcgrew said. “It was a great way to end it.”
But the game wasn’t over, and St. Mary’s had to endure two more scares. Ramirez somehow got a breakaway, but hit the ball right at Osborne. But the Panthers couldn’t clear the ball from their zone, and Gonzalez found himself open at the top of the box with the ball at his feet. His shot was headed for the upper left corner of the goal, but Osborne covered it with ease just before the final whistle.
Eisele said those unconverted chances were typical of his team’s season.
“If we just start converting, we’ll start winning,” he said. “We’ve been coming so close this year.”