Every championship run has its share of potential stumbling blocks. On Tuesday, against Mt. Hebron on the road, River Hill's boys soccer team cleared one of the bigger ones left on its schedule in impressive fashion.
The Hawks capitalized on set pieces and played lock-down defense, earning a 3-0 shutout victory that has the team one win away from at least a share of the program's first Howard County championship since 2007.
"To be perfectly honest, I was very nervous about this game … Mt. Hebron always plays us incredibly tough," River Hill coach Matt Shagogue said. "So for us to come out the way we did, and then sustain that effort the rest of the game, I was very pleased. They know how important this and every game is at this point."
River Hill (9-1, 12-1) has just one game left on its schedule, a road tilt against Wilde Lake (1-8, 1-10-1) on Friday. After losing its county opener against Reservoir in early September, the Hawks have won nine straight league games to put themselves in a position where they control their own destiny.
"We can't make the mistake of getting ahead of ourselves and underestimating Wilde Lake, but I think everyone's definitely excited to be in this spot," said River Hill senior Alec Smith. "We're close … very close."
Marriotts Ridge entered the week with just one county loss as well, giving it a shot at a potential share of the county championship by winning out as well.
For River Hill against Mt. Hebron (6-3-1, 8-3-1), the offense got going in the 14th minute courtesy of a corner kick from Smith. He put a ball into the box and Derek Farley headed it home.
Then, less than a minute later, the Hawks struck again on almost an identical play. This time it was Smith putting a free kick onto the head of Mike Heitzmann, who redirected it into the net.
"All coach Shagogue talks about is pressure, pressure, pressure. So once we get one goal, we're coming right back out and trying to get another one before the other team can regroup," Smith said.
Even with the two-goal lead, River Hill kept pushing. The team was hoping to avoid a late-game comeback like Marriotts Ridge orchestrated to force overtime against the Hawks earlier this fall.
And, midway through the second half, Mike Faderin provided that insurance the team was looking for.
Following a corner kick by Smith, there was a scramble in the box that led to Faderin sneaking in and kicking home a ball that was bouncing around in traffic.
"Two was good, but I really thought we needed that third goal to feel safe," Shagogue said. "We didn't want a situation where they score off a throw-in or something and suddenly it's a completely different game."
Mt. Hebron battled to create offensive chances of its own late in regulation, but failed to generate anything dangerous enough to result in a goal. Ultimately, the Vikings were held scoreless for only the second time all season.
"I thought, more than anything, (River Hill) just worked extremely hard and were really organized in the back," Mt. Hebron coach Mike Linsenmeyer said. "Coach Shagogue did a great job preparing them for the game and they took us out of some of the things we were trying to do. They outplayed us tonight."