Sean Fielden wasn’t sure of the answer when asked before Friday night’s boys’ soccer match against Clover how his Fort Mill team is looking.
“We’ll know more after this,” he said.
Fielden, in his first year as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach after four years as Lloyd Chalker’s assistant coach, learned his team has some guts. Fort Mill (4-1, 2-0 Region 3-4A) overcame a one-goal deficit to beat the Blue Eagles in penalty kicks, 4-3.
“That would have been a heart-breaking loss to really control the game and not put it away,” he said. “It was coming, and it was kind of déjà vu from last year when we scored late and then won in PK’s.”
Fort Mill trailed Clover (2-3-1, 0-1) 1-nil late in the second half when the referee pointed toward the penalty spot after a shot struck a Yellow Jacket defender’s arm.
Sophomore keeper Gavin McCraw dropped down to his right to deny Dylan Jones’ penalty, keeping the Yellow Jackets’ hopes alive. Fort Mill then got the just reward for its lack of quit, freshman Joseph Banny – a varsity player for three games now – popping up in the box with a couple of minutes left to nod in the late equalizer.
McCraw wasn’t done yet. After two scoreless five-minute overtime periods, he saved one penalty and watched another go wide of the post as Fort Mill moved to 2-0 in Region 3-4A, after beating Northwestern earlier in the week.
“With two of the hardest teams out of the way and one on the road, is very big,” said Fielden.
McCraw’s penalty save with about 11 minutes left was the turning point.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man, huh?” said Clover coach Graham Stafford. “We score that, we win the game. It’s over.”
McCraw isn’t the biggest keeper, but he’s quick and he said working on penalties after practices has helped him sharpen his reflexes.
“You can read them, their hips and their eyes,” said McCraw. “I try to read (them) first and then if I can’t, I guess.”
Fielden was so confident in McCraw that he was telling his team before overtime began to get the game to penalties, where the keeper again rewarded his coach’s faith.
The current mental mettle of two of the region’s title contenders was laid bare Friday. Clover took a first half lead through an own goal, but squandered the opportunity to put the game to bed in regulation, before struggling in the shootout.
“There were big moments in the game; they executed in big moments and we didn’t,” said Stafford. “It’s as simple as that.”
Conversely, Fort Mill did take advantage of its breaks. “Mental toughness is gonna be tested here,” Fielden told his team at halftime. “You can fall apart or you can respond.”
The Yellow Jackets chose the latter on Friday night in what Fielden called, “a huge second step.”
McCraw was excellent, as was Banny, the goalscorer. A slightly built right back, Banny was calm with the ball, always put a foot in at the right time to break up Clover attacks and would have been difficult to pinpoint as the ninth grader on the field.
“We returned 10 of our starters from last year and 15 of the top-16 in minutes,” said Fielden. “I didn’t want (Banny) to rot on the bench. We had a scrimmage with Indian Land and I pulled him up and he dominated the scrimmage, he’s dominated Northwestern, and I thought - even if you take away the goal - he dominated defensively. He’s a huge difference maker. Defensively, he’s a rock back there.”
Clover heads to Rock Hill next Tuesday, while Fort Mill faces rival Nation Ford on the road the same night.
Fort Mill 1, Clover 1 (4-3 PKs)
Clover: Own goal (30). Fort Mill: Joseph Banney (77).