BRISTOL — Heading into the second overtime of Tuesday’s first-round Division II playoff game in Bristol, the Rice and Mount Abraham Union High School boys’ soccer teams had played 195 scoreless minutes this fall, a 0-0 tie at Rice on Oct. 5 and a tense 80 minutes of regulation and then Tuesday’s 15-minute first overtime.
But the Eagles were picking up their level of intensity and winning the ball in the overtimes, when they outshot Rice, 6-3, and earned three corner kicks to none for their visitors. About four minutes into the second overtime, junior flank midfielder Sawyer Kamman pressured the Rice right back, and the ball popped toward the middle of the field to senior midfielder Alex McCormick.
For most of the game, a Rice defense led by senior Caleb Lothian had limited the Eagles’ good looks at goal — although McCormick and junior striker Ethan White each had gotten in alone on Rice goalie Connor Gorman, only to come away empty-handed, and White had one-timed a Kamman cross high from point-blank range early in the first half.
But this time when McCormick touched the ball toward the middle of the field, about 25 yards out and 20 yards in from the left sideline, he had open field in front of him and time to tee up a shot.
“I just kind of turned and hit it. I just saw an open net, so I just hit it,” McCormick said.
As soon as McCormick shot, Mount Abe co-athletic director Jeff Stetson, stationed at midfield, said, “That’s going in.”
Mount Abe coach Mike Corey, to Stetson’s right, was perfectly lined up to see McCormick’s blistering drive nestle into the upper right corner 4:19 into the second OT.
“I had the perfect vantage. I was directly behind that ball when he struck that thing, and I was off the bench when it left his foot, basically, because I knew that sucker was going,” Corey said. “And it was so much fun to watch that thing bob, dance and curl. As the Rice coach, Ed DeMulder, said, there was nobody on the planet that was going to stop that shot. And he’s right. That was a rocket, a thing of beauty.”
The 1-0 win moved the Eagles to 7-7-1 and dropped Rice to a misleading 3-10-2. Rice played a tougher schedule than other Lake Division teams, and was the only team to score on D-I top seed Middlebury in the Tigers’ final five regular season games.
Next, Mount Abe will either play at No. 3 Lake Region (12-2) or host No. 14 Mill River on Friday at 3 p.m. Those teams were set to meet in a first-round game on Wednesday after the deadline for this edition of the Independent. After that would be a Tuesday semifinal, most likely at No. 2 Montpelier.
Corey said the Eagles have the ability to advance further, particularly if junior midfielder Calvin Joos, who did not play on Tuesday, can return from a concussion, and if junior striker Jan Liegmann can contribute despite a painful nagging foot injury — his minutes were limited vs. Rice.
“We’re real strong, 14 or 15 deep, when we’re healthy,” Corey said.
Certainly, the kind of defense the Eagles played vs. Rice will help them moving forward. Mount Abe limited the Green Knights — who have a dangerous striker in sophomore Hussein Hussein and a threat in the back in Lothian, who strikes free kicks long and accurately — to 12 shots, three on goal. Junior keeper Ira Fisher handled all of those, the most dangerous of which was a 15-yard left-foot bid by Hussein late in the first half.
Eagle center backs Whit Lower and Jackie Gorton played strong games, with Lower particularly effective in the air. Sam Weaver played well on one flank all game, as did Clayton Duclos and Gus Catlin sharing time on the other side. Lower also stepped into the attack on corner kicks, and Rice goalie Connor Gorman (three saves) denied his well-struck header midway through the second half.
At midfield, junior Cale Thygesen provided vocal leadership, excelled defensively, won 50-50 balls, and set up many of the best Eagle threats — they outshot Rice, 18-12, even if only four landed on goal. Theo Weaver and Rider MacRellish also had good moments for the Eagles on the attack and at midfield, respectively.
Corey said when the Eagles came on strong late it was partly because of determination, and partly because he moved Thygesen into a more offensive role in a more offensive formation, with five midfielders.
“We decided to switch up to a 3-5-2 to give us a little more presence and put Cale up at attacking midfield. I would say that helped a lot, having Cale high, and I though Jackie and Whit behind him did a nice job of winning balls and getting things moving forward,” Corey said.
Ultimately, though, Corey said the players took charge, and McCormick agreed they did in what he said was a confidence-boosting win.
“I guess we just decided we needed to win,” McCormick said. “We were all picking each other up and pushing each other as hard as we could.”
And McCormick was happy to seal the win for his team with a memorable goal.
“Amazing. I can’t even describe it,” he said. “It feels so good.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]