Morgan soccer falls in Sweet 16

Connor Clark, a sophomore, kicks the ball down the field after the Bulldogs’ defense stopped a surge by Calhoun. 

PHOTO: Justin Hubbard

By Justin Hubbard

justin@lakeoconeenews.us

 

After the final horn sounded to end last Wednesday’s Morgan County-Calhoun boys soccer game, the only thing that could be heard near Morgan’s side of the field was the sound of cleats slowly scratching across the concrete steps leading up from the field at Bill Corry Stadium to the Bulldogs’ locker room.

The game ended 1-0 in favor of Calhoun. The loss marked the end of a 10-game winning streak for Morgan, which dated back to March 9, and, more importantly, eliminated the Bulldogs from the Class AAA state tournament. It was their second-straight loss in the second round.

The Bulldogs appeared solemn as they exited the field for the final time in 2018. Their head coach, Aaron Paul, said that didn’t change once they got inside the locker room.

“It was silent,” Paul said. “It was somber. You could hear a pin drop. I know the seniors were upset. I went in the office for a minute and I sat in there and was like, 'I don't know what I'm going to say. What do I say?' I went in there and told them, as bad as this sucks right now, I said, 'Seniors, I want you to think about when you were freshmen. Your first two years, we weren't even close to this. ...'

Paul took over the program in 2015 – when this year’s seniors were freshmen – and the Bulldogs went 6-7-2 that season. They went 4-8-2 in 2016.

Bulldogs goalkeeper Collin Sitzmann made numerous impressive saves early in the first half of last week’s game against Calhoun. After stopping another shot attempt, a Calhoun player found the ball near the goal and kicked it in while Sitzmann was trying to pick himself up after the initial block.

“That goal that we gave up was on a corner kick or a throw-in and it was like a second ball and we just didn't get to the second ball,” Paul said. “I think a guy went up, hit it with his head or got it with his foot and then the other guy got it tapped in. It wasn't a miraculous shot or anything. It was just something kind of funky.”

Calhoun’s goal came with a little more than 25 minutes remaining in the first half. The Bulldogs “weren’t as sharp as normal,” as Paul put it, in the game’s opening minutes. They found a little bit of a rhythm by halftime, though, and kept it up in the second half.

Freshman Trace Blanton had a couple of near-misses. Senior Nick Seymour took a shot or two and had them deflected by the Calhoun goalkeeper. On one particular corner kick late in the contest, junior Finn Williams had an open opportunity on a header but, somehow, the ball went straight down to the ground instead of into the net.

Morgan peppered Calhoun’s goal in the second half but couldn’t generate any goals. Paul said if the Bulldogs had established that type of barrage in the first half, things could have ended differently.

“In the playoffs, especially the second round, you've got to play for both halves, not just one of them,” Paul said. “I wish I could get that first half back and I know those seniors wish they could get that first half back but that's just how it falls sometimes.”

In addition to a lackluster offensive performance in the first half, Paul said Morgan’s defense was thrown off a bit by Calhoun’s offensive attack.

“They pressed our defense,” he said. “When our defenders had the ball, they had two guys there creating some havoc for us. Our defenders – Ben Adams, Patrick Griffin, Andrew Watkins, Yusuf Baig and David Rachkovsky – they haven't seen that all year. In previous games, they've had plenty of time with the ball to move it around and switch it on the other half of the field and then now, all of a sudden, they're under pressure, they're under pressure. When you haven't seen that all year, that's tough. That's tough to try to scheme around when you're in a game.”

Wednesday’s game marked the end of the Bulldogs’ seniors’ careers. Andrew Watkins, Phillip Webb, Grant Friddell, Russ Kimsey, Carlos Hernandez, Baig, Seymour and Griffin played their final game in front of the Morgan County faithful.

Paul said the group holds a special place for him, considering this is the first class he’s coached for four years.

“I cannot thank them enough for their patience with me as a coach learning how to do this, learning how to work with them and manage a soccer team,” Paul said. “I can't thank them enough for their hard work and their dedication over the past four years. I'm going to miss those guys. They're a special bunch.”

Paul said he considers the seniors family and said “they can’t be replaced.” But the Bulldogs will need other players to fill in the roles they leave behind.

That’s where this year’s freshmen and sophomores come in.

“We're losing this big group of seniors, all of which have contributed significantly,” Paul said. “We've got to figure out who's going to step up and play. Luckily, we've had some depth this year. Guys like Connor Clark and Grayson Jarman are going to step in. Simon LeClair has got an opportunity. ... There's some wide-open spots on the defense.”

The standard has been set. Despite the heartbreaking finishes to the past two seasons, Morgan boys soccer is at arguably its greatest peak as a program.

Paul said next year’s returning players know where they need to go. The next step is finding a way beyond the Sweet 16 blues.

“They've set the expectation high,” he said. “These younger guys know we've got to try to win another region championship to put us into position for the playoffs and then we've got to get past this second round.”

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