All season, Great Mills coach Matt Protzman says his Hornets have been a second half team.
So, even with the score of its 3A state semifinal game against Centennial on Saturday afternoon tied 1-1, Protzman was perfectly content.
“We’ve had like six games this year where we’ve been behind at halftime or tied, so we weren’t phased at all. If anything, things were right where we wanted them,” Protzman said. “For whatever reason, these guys just always come out fired up in the second half and I think there was that feeling at halftime today that we had this within our grasp.”
True to form, Great Mills ended up scoring twice in the second half — while holding the Eagles scoreless — on the way to a 3-1 victory.
“I’m so happy I can barely speak, this team has so much heart and I’m so proud to play with them,” said junior Michael Salguero, who delivered the team’s second goal that ended up being the game-winner with 19:33 left in the second half. “We’ve worked so hard to get here … to be going to states.”
With the win, Great Mills advances to the 3A state championship game next week against C. Milton Wright, which defeated Manchester Valley 2-0 in the other semifinal contest. It will be the first time the program has ever played for a state championship.
On the other side, Centennial fell short in its first state semifinal appearance since 1996. The Eagles were able to bounce back after falling behind in the first half, but were unable to answer again later when Great Mills took the lead midway through the second.
“I feel like we came out a little shaky. It was a big moment for us and it took us a little while to adjust,” Centennial coach Justin Thomas said. “But then we calmed down and I thought we played a great first half after [their goal] and we evened it up. But then it got a little tougher for us when the second one wasn’t coming. We had some chances and it didn’t go our way.”
Great Mills wasted little time setting the tone, pressuring right from the opening kickoff and getting rewarded less than three minutes in when a free kick by Tucker Protzman caromed off Centennial goalie Jon Bossom (6 saves).
Daniel Botia pounced on the rebound and fed Kelvin Coronado, who redirected the ball into the net for a 1-0 lead with 37:15 left in the opening half.
“One of the things that we really work on is the first 10 minutes of each half, because those are critical,” coach Protzman said. “You can’t necessarily win the game there, but you absolutely can lose it. So we wanted to make sure we came out high tempo and I thought that’s exactly what we did.”
After that initial strike, though, Centennial was the one that began controlling the run of play and generating offensive opportunities. It took until the closing minutes of the opening half, but that pressure did eventually lead to the equalizer.
Hamzah Elhabashy slotted a through pass to Zach Haskins, who fired a shot just inside the left post to make it 1-1 with 2:30 left before halftime.
The score stay tied going into intermission.
Centennial nearly took its first lead in the first 10 minutes out of the second half when Alex Keppler had a shot from inside the box that beat the goalie, but was saved off the end line by Great Mills’ Botia. Thomas said that Keppler’s chance was one of several that he thought could have produced goals that ended in near misses.
He said afterward that he could see the frustration definitely beginning to mount.
“We feed off that energy and momentum. So when a couple things don’t go our way … it’s hard to keep that going for 40 minutes,” he said.
With the game still tied midway through the half, Salguero finally broke the deadlock. On a failed clear off a Centennial header, he ran up on a ball at the top of the box and struck a low shot just inside the left post.
From there, Great Mills took over. The team added another goal just six minutes after Salguero’s strike, this time on a shot by Gabriel Ichniowski that glanced off the back of a Centennial defender and into the back of the net for a 3-1 lead.
“That second goal, you could see it, it really energized the guys and they were hungry for more. We went with a different tactical package in the second half, one that put a little more pressure on their back line and it ended up paying off,” Protzman said.
The Eagles had a couple more chances before the end of regulation, however nothing found the net and the Hornets were the ones rushing the field to celebrate a historic win for their program.
Reach Brent Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports