There probably has not been a better high school boys’ soccer duo this season than Herndon High teammates Sean Murnane and Christian McLaughlin. All spring long, the Hornet twosome have spear-headed a Herndon offensive attack that has helped make coach Sean Lanigan’s squad one of the top outfits in the Northern Region.
Herndon’s terrific one-two punch of Murnane and McLaughlin came through in a big time way last Saturday afternoon when they teamed up for a dramatic late game score to lift Herndon to a 1-0 victory over Westfield in the finals of the Concorde District tournament.
The win made Herndon the district champion for the first time since the late 1990s when Lanigan, currently in his second stint as the team’s head coach, was at the helm of the program.
Those Hornet teams under Lanigan from 1996 through 2000 captured three region crowns. Now, during this current season in Lanigan’s return campaign to Herndon soccer, it’s feeling a bit like old times again.
"It’s very satisfying right now," said Lanigan, moments after his team had beaten Westfield on the Bulldogs’ own field last Saturday. "They brought me here to have success. There is a winning tradition here. I set the expectations real high and they have been really responding."
In Saturday’s championship game, it looked almost for certain as if the contest was heading for an overtime session as the game remained scoreless going into the final minutes of regulation play.
But then the Hornets scored one of their biggest goals in the program’s history. Following a few moments of stoppage of play due to an injury timeout after Hornet player Chris Geyer was shaken up, Herndon struck hard and fast when play resumed.
It started when McLaughlin, a senior center midfielder, booted a long kick down the left side of the field intended for Murnane, the Hornets’ outstanding junior striker.
Murnane ran down the ball, and burst down the left side of the field all alone. After the Westfield goalie had committed, Murnane struck a crossing shot that landed into the far side of the net. The goal started an eruption of Herndon celebration from both the players and its solid fan base located in the far side stadium bleachers. The Hornets had a 1-0 lead with just a minute showing on the clock.
The Hornets had no problem holding the Bulldogs away from the net over that final minute and, when the final whistle blow, the players on the winning team celebrated wildly on the field.
"It’s what we set out to do," said McLaughlin, of winning the district crown. "That was our [goal] and we got it done."
<b>MCLAUGHLIN</b> said things happened quickly in the moments following the timeout injury to Geyer at the Westfield end of the field.
"Chris got fouled and [Westfield] started complaining," said McLaughlin.
When play resumed with McLaughlin getting a free kick, the Hornets were looking to hit paydirt.
"I put the ball down and saw that Sean was all alone up the left side of the field," said McLaughlin. "As soon as it left my foot, I knew it was a one-on-one [for Murnane] and knew he could get the goal. It’s happened all season, it’s happened all our lives."
McLaughlin indeed had that extra sense that his long pass to Murnane could lead to a game-winner. The two have been playing together for the past eight years as members of the Reston Football Club and have a knack of reading one another’s actions on the field.
"He beat the keeper with a one-touch and slid it home," said McLaughlin, of Murnane’s final move and score.
Murnane, who played for Westfield a year ago before transferring to Herndon for this school year, said the Hornets did not waste any time getting the ball back into play once the official gave the go-ahead to start up again.
"We took advantage of a quick re-start and Christian gave me a perfect ball," he said. "I saw their goalie coming out. I knew I could get [to the ball] before him. I shot it, looked up and knew it was going in."
Murnane said it was a thrill to connect on the game-winner.
"I can’t explain the feeling," he said. "The crowd was going crazy."
<b>IN THE GAME’S</b> aftermath, the Herndon players shared their celebration with the school’s student body. At one point, the players ran along the fence separating the players and students and high-fived their classmates."
During the postgame ceremonies, each of the Herndon players was presented with a district championship patch. Lanigan was given a championship plaque and team banner.
Lanigan said Murnane had a couple of scoring opportunities in the first half of the game, but could not capitalize. The coach said the missed chances did not discourage Murnane.
"A player of that caliber always comes back," said Lanigan. "He didn’t get down on himself."
Of the game-winning score, Lanigan said, "The magic between [Christian and Sean] is surreal. That’s not coaching. Christian saw Sean getting his run and he put it down [the field] before Westfield could react to it."
Overall, Herndon played a solid game and won the title as a team. Lanigan said Geyer, a senior defensive midfielder, was called upon to shadow Westfield standout player AJ Sheta, a senior midfielder. And Geyer came up big by successfully holding the talented goal scorer down.
"Chris played AJ one-on-one," said Lanigan. "I thought he had the best game of his career."
And it could not have come at a better time. In fact, a number of Hornets, including goalie Alex Stopa, played outstanding games. The result was a district title.
Herndon (14-1 record) also beat Westfield in a come-from-behind 3-2 decision during the regular season. The Hornets’ lone setback this season came to district foe Robinson.
Murnane said he was excited about going up against his former team in the district finals.
And to net the game winning goal made it even better.
"To come back here and win it is especially good for me," he said. [Westfield] is a good team and we’ll probably have to play them again [in the region playoffs]. I have a lot of friends on both Westfield and Herndon. To come back here and win and get the winning goal is nice."
Murnane said the loud, enthusiastic student body boosted his team. And the constant drumbeat helped the Hornets gain the momentum.
"We were feeding off their energy and the drum beat," he said.
Lanigan said that the bottom line was that his Herndon players earned their district title.
"They deserve all the credit," he said.
The coach said the Hornets have a good chance of putting together another special playoff run at regionals this week. But the Hornets, he said, must be prepared to give it their all.
"We expect to win every game we’re in," said Lanigan. "They believe in themselves and expect to be in the region finals. But it’s going to take work. If we’re flat, we’ll be going home early."