BRISTOL — The No. 1-seed Mount Abraham Union High School boys’ soccer team struck for two early goals vs. visiting No. 4 Rice in Tuesday’s Division II semifinal, and then after surrendering a first-half score put the clamps on defensively to win, 2-1.
As a result, the Eagles (16-1) advanced to the D-II final for the first time since 2004, when Mount Abraham defeated Montpelier in triple overtime for the program’s only championship.
For several Eagles, Tuesday’s victory also reversed two seasons of playoff frustration: They lost by one goal in each of the past two semifinal rounds, in double overtime in 2011.
Eagle senior midfielder and co-captain Cale Thygesen is one who tasted those two defeats, and he explained how pumped up the team’s veterans were for Tuesday’s game.
“I’ve always made it to the semifinals, and then we’ve lost, and I know how bad it feels,” Thygesen said. “This one is huge.”
All the Eagles came out of the locker room on a mission, and not just because Rice had dealt them their only loss, 1-0, on Oct. 19.
“We’ve got our big speakers in there. We listen to our music. We get all fired up. We’re all hugging and having a good time,” Thygesen said. “We’re a bunch of brothers out there.”
The Eagles controlled possession early, and took the lead at 32:17. Thygesen, then at offensive central midfield, possessed outside the Rice box. He went on a left-to-right diagonal run into the penalty area, and then turned and hit a low, hard ball back toward the right post.
Senior forward Ethan White was charging down the middle, and senior left midfielder Sawyer Kamman was making a run at the left post; they occupied the defenders and distracting the goalie. Somehow the ball ended up in the goal — nobody really knew how until Coach Mike Corey saw a TV replay several hours later while on the phone with a reporter: The ball eluded everybody and went in off the post, giving Thygesen the goal.
Rice had one chance to tie before the Eagles made it 2-0, but junior central defender Whit Lower — a force in the back all game — headed a ball off the goal line after a serve from the right side bounced off Eagle senior goalie Ira Fisher (six saves).
But in the early going, that was an unusual sight, as Mount Abe pressed. The territorial edge paid off at 29:11, when Thygesen led White perfectly alone on a run toward the left post. Rice goalie Leland Gazo (two saves) came out, but White was there first and calmly tapped the ball home with the outside of his right foot.
The 10-6-1 Green Knights then began to carry play, working hard to disrupt the Eagles’ possession tactics and using their speed up front to threaten. They scored at 22:47, when junior Jordain Williams beautifully struck a 25-yard free kick off the crossbar, and classmate Hussein Hussein tapped the rebound inside the left post.
But although Rice outshot the Eagles, 9-6, in the first half, most of the chances came from long range. And although Fisher bobbled a couple to create anxious moments on the rebounds, the Eagles had the best opportunity: Senior middie Aiden White-Pifer set up another Ethan White run inside the box, and Gazo jumped to his right to snare White’s 10-yard bid in the 25th minute.
Still, Thygesen acknowledged the Eagles had to regroup.
“Late in the first half they were all over us,” Thygesen said. “We all knew it was going in their favor, and they were getting more amped up … We just wanted to settle it down, get the ball on the ground, pass it.”
Corey also made a tactical switch in the second half. Although his starting defense — Lower and junior Gus Catlin in the middle and senior Calvin Joos on the right and junior Theo Weaver on the left — had played well, Corey added Thygesen to the central defense, moved Weaver to offensive midfield, and sophomore Jackie Gorton at left back.
“We made an adjustment and gave (Thygesen) more defensive responsibility in the second half, (at) which he was just incredible,” Corey said.
The Green Knights managed just three second-half shots despite a series of direct kicks, and only one of those landed on goal, a soft header that Fisher handed easily.
Corey praised his entire defensive unit.
“The last two games I’ve been really happy with the defense. They’ve been steady, and they haven’t made really any egregious mistakes, and that’s what it takes to win championships, really rock-solid defense,” Corey said.
At the other end, White threatened steadily as the Eagles countered; he launched most of their seven second-half shots, and Mount Abe finished with a 13-12 edge in shots at goal.
“Ethan just works his tail off … He just beats people to balls,” Corey said. “He breaks down people with his pace.”
The Eagles have already defeated two familiar Lake Division foes, Milton and Rice, to reach the championship game, and they will face another one, Green Mountain Valley, in Saturday’s final in Randolph at a time that had yet to be determined on Wednesday.
Mount Abe defeated the Gumbies twice this fall, 4-3 in the Sept. 4 season opener for both teams, and 2-0 at GMVS on Oct. 14. Those were both tight games, and the three goals surrendered on Sept. 4 tied for the most the Eagles surrendered in a contest this season.
Corey said he just wants to see more of the same from the Eagles on the field on Saturday and at practice before then.
“We’re just going to come to training tomorrow and keep having fun. These guys, I think, as much as they want a championship, they don’t want the season to end. Our training sessions are incredible,” Corey said. “They work, work, work. They challenge each other. They laugh. They raise each other’s game. It’s been an absolute pleasure for me just to come and spend my afternoons with these guys.”
Thygesen, likewise, said the Eagles will just take the same approach on Saturday that worked on Tuesday.
“I mean, it’s going to take a lot to beat us,” Thygesen said. “We’re going to be so fired up. A good night’s rest and a good meal, that’s what it’s going to take for us.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]