A controversial second half goal by the Wando Warriors was enough to edge the Nation Ford Falcons in the 5A state soccer championship 2-1.
It was a much closer match Saturday night than many might have expected.
In looking at the two teams on paper, the numbers for Wando jumped off the page. The Warriors came into the game as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, according to USA Today and No. 2 team in the MaxPreps rankings. They were 26-0 on the season with 53 consecutive wins going back to last year while allowing just 21 goals during that run.
The Warriors were also going for their second straight state title.
None of that mattered to Nation Ford, which was making its first appearance in the state finals. The Falcons came into the match ranked sixth nationally by MaxPreps and was 19-4 overall, so despite the gaudy stats Wando brought to the final, they had no doubt they belonged, too.
“Not only did we come out and compete, we gave them everything they could handle and more,” said Falcons’ head coach Jon Jarrett. “One unlucky break away and they scored. We had them under siege. We thought we had it a few times, it just didn’t happen. The guys never quit. They gave 100 percent every minute they played this season. I am really proud of our guys. They left it all on the field.”
Wando came out and attacked Nation Ford early, scoring just 2:01 into the game on a header by Charlie Marino catching freshman keeper Ryan Halas off guard early into the action.
Nation Ford fought back and controlled possession more as the game ticked away in the first 10 minutes. The Falcons had opportunities on free kicks and corner kicks, but could not find the back of the net. Wando got a clean look about 11 minutes into the game, but Halas made a diving save to keep the Warriors from adding to their lead.
While Nation Ford owned the ball more in the first half, Wando had more breakaway attacks at the Falcons’ goal, keeping Halas on his toes. Nation Ford kept peppering the Warriors' box with corner kicks and free kicks, but the Wando back line came as advertised.
Persistence was key for the Falcons as Jake Cubine scored for Nation Ford to tie the game at 1-1 off a free kick from about 50 yards away with 13 minutes left to play in the first half. After the goal, Nation Ford picked up the aggression and took the game to Wando beating them to the ball and stealing possessions, though with nothing to show for it on the scoreboard.
Wando came out in the second half more conservative in its approach and with its passes. The strategy worked as the Warriors got more touches, but both teams continued to turn up the aggression as they would continue slamming into each other often in battling for the ball.
The Warriors would use those touches to score just three minutes into the second half to take a 2-1 lead on a goal from Alex Holloman. The side judge pulled his flag to call a handball during the play, but the call was reversed and the goal was allowed to stand.
“The one call that didn’t go our way was clearly a handball,” Jarrett said. “Handball is a weird call in soccer and it was completely at the refs’ discretion.”
With about 75 seconds left in the game, it looked as if Nation Ford would get a penalty kick on a call. However, the call again was reversed and Wando was able to run the clock out.
“Our guy did bump him first, but their guy ripped my guy’s jersey and pulled him down from behind it and would have absolutely been a (penalty kick),” Jarrett said. “My guy did bump him first, but it wasn’t nearly as egregious.”
Defensively, Halas played well in goal making numerous saves throughout the game as Wando stayed on the attack for a lot of the game.
Mac Banks: email@example.com, @MacBanksFM