It was a confident, fired-up McLean Highlanders boys’ soccer team that went into halftime of its Northern Region championship game against Stone Bridge with a two goal lead on Friday evening, June 4.
The team, however, was not overconfident in the least, knowing the type of firepower the talented Bulldogs, members of the same Liberty District as McLean, can generate at the blink of an eye. Besides, Mclean head coach Mike Anderson, a strict leader who can read his team’s emotions better than anyone, would not allow that to happen.
The McLean players knew what was ahead of them in the second half – the challenge of holding off a cornered rival that would give everything it had to get back into the game. The Highlanders still had 40 minutes of game time against the Bulldogs on the Lake Braddock High stadium field. That would tell the tale as to whether or not McLean would realize its dream of winning the program’s first region crown since 1980.
In the end, Stone Bridge, under the direction of renowned head coach Randy May, took control of the game in the second half and handed McLean a stunning, 3-2 loss.
“They’re obviously an outstanding team and outstanding teams win like that,” said McLean senior defender Andrew Hunt. “They earned it tonight. They came back from 2-0.”
In a scoring flurry that spanned 16 minutes of the second half, Stone Bridge tallied three goals, the latter score coming with 16 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the contest, to overtake the Highlanders.
Both teams, by reaching the title match of the 16-team region tournament, will next advance to the eight-team Virginia state tournament next Tuesday, June 8 with the Highlanders playing a road game against Battlefield High (Haymarket), the Northwestern Region champion, and Stone Bridge hosting Patrick Henry (Roanoke), the Northwestern Region runner-up.
McLean, the Liberty District champions this season, reached the region finals with victories over Washington-Lee, Chantilly, and Yorktown.
In facing Stone Bridge in the region championship, McLean was going up against a team it had defeated twice before this season – 3-1 in a regular season home contest on May 13, and a 1-0 triumph six days later in a district tournament semifinals affair at Stone Bridge in Ashburn.
In Friday’s meeting, McLean had the difficult challenge of defeating its talented rival for a third time. It looked as if the Highlanders might put it off after 40 minutes. But the Bulldogs stormed back in the latter half.
“I thought our first half was magnificent,” said Anderson, the McLean coach. “We were doing fine. But in this game, this kind of thing happens.”
<b>STONE BRIDGE</b>, seven minutes into the second half, got onto the scoreboard when senior forward Michael Herndon pounced after a ball that got behind McLean’s defense and moved in for a breakaway score, getting his shot past charging Highlander goalie Rob Maffei, to get his team within 2-1.
“We had two center backs diving for the ball,” said Anderson. “Mikey Herndon did a good job getting it [and scoring].”
The goal was a huge momentum boost for the Bulldogs, who were now right back in the game.
Later, Stone Bridge tied things up on a straight-on, header goal by junior defenseman Luke Schierling with 16 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the half. The goal came off a long throw-in pass from the right side by Tommy Dunne, whose strong toss went right into the scoring area.
Sensing the kill, perhaps, Stone Bridge followed the equalizer goal with the go-ahead score less than two minutes later – this one also coming from Schierling. A crossing pass by teammate Herndon from the right corner of the field set up the goal to make it 3-2 Stone Bridge.
McLean continued to play hard and made a gallant offensive push in the final minute. With less than 30 seconds to play, McLean’s Michael Russo set up for a free kick 45 yards away off the right side. His well-directed ball went into the goalie area where players from both teams converged on the ball. During the hectic action, McLean junior Rafael Enriquez-Hesles somehow managed to corral the ball. He immediately got off a strong shot from 10 yards off the right side which was blocked by goalie Nick Lowrey. Moments later, sophomore midfielder Sophien Djemmal, off the rebound, took a straight-on shot from 12 yards out that was also stopped by the goalie as time ran out.
It was a thrilling conclusion to the game – and a heart-breaker for a McLean team that came so close to scoring in the final seconds of play.
When asked about his shot on goal in the closing seconds, Enriquez-Hesles gave a frustrated smile while slowly shaking his head. He said he thought he should have scored.
But Enriquez-Hesles had made a terrific play just in getting the well-struck shot off. Lowrey, the goalie, had simply come up big during the final sequence.
McLean senior Tim Whitebread, a senior and a First Team All-Region selection, picked up yellow cards in both the first and second half, the latter coming four minutes following Stone Bridge’s initial goal that got the Bulldogs within 2-1. As a result of the yellow cards, the talented Highlander was lost to his team for the final 28-plus minutes.
It was a tough blow for McLean to be without its top player just as Stone Bridge was gaining second half momentum.
“It killed us,” said Anderson, who hurt for his disappointed player. “His work rate and pace is everything to us. To get that second yellow card hurt us. But that kind of thing happens.”
<b>MCLEAN OPENED</b> the game’s scoring with a goal from senior forward Matt Janssen with 12:48 remaining in the first half. The score was set up by a corner kick that crossed the goal area and out to Kevin Pyne near the right corner of the field. Pyne sent the ball back across the goal area where Janssen, near the far post, ultimately put the ball in to give his team a 1-0 lead.
More than seven minutes later, McLean scored again when Whitebread, from 14 yards out, sent the ball into the right side of the net to make it 2-0.
That was the score at the half. The second half belonged to Stone Bridge.
Anderson said his team wouldn’t reflect on the loss for long.
“We’ll regroup,” said Anderson. “We’ll let [the guys] simmer about 24 hours, then get together, have a dinner or something and hang out.”
Next up is states.
“It was an all-out effort by both sides,” said Enriquez-Hesles, of the Stone Bridge game. “We still have got states and a lot of time to prove ourselves. We still have games left and anything can happen.”