River Hill coach Matt Shagogue entered Saturday’s 2A state semifinal game against Fallston just hoping his eight seniors got one more chance to take the field on the biggest stage.
The group has been a steady force for the Hawks, guiding the program to the county championship this fall, but the hope all along was to get back to Loyola University to play for all the marbles and another state title.
Behind two goals from senior Evan Doten and another from senior Cory Northrup, River Hill beat Fallston, 3-1, to advance to the state championship game for the 11th time in 21 years and the first time since winning the 3A state title in 2014.
The Hawks will face Eastern Tech, 2-1 winners over Century in the other semifinal at River Hill, at Ridley Athletic Complex on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday for the championship, where they have won nine times in their 10 previous appearances.
“They’re seniors. That’s what you hope,” Shagogue said. “You hope that the guys who have been in the program for four years and have worked so hard and quite honestly deserve this opportunity and this moment that they get it, and they made the best of it. Really, really happy for them and happy that they get an opportunity to play another game.”
On the other side, the Cougars fell in the semifinal round for the seventh time in 18 final-four appearances a year after losing in the finals for the 10th time. They will have to wait another year to try to win their first championship since 1992.
“We played well, we just didn’t put them in the net, that’s all,” Fallston coach Drew Bisker said. “They had three shots go in the goal. They’re a good team but I thought we played very well. We just didn’t take the shots we needed to take.”
Doten capitalized on the Hawks’ first shot on goal with 25 minutes, 56 seconds remaining in the opening half. A failed clearing attempt by a Cougars defender allowed Northrup to take a touch and find Doten streaking stepping toward goal. His shot from 33 yards out powered past Fallston goalie Mason Mullaney and into the bottom left corner to give River Hill a 1-0 lead.
The Hawks (15-1-2) struck again a little more than three minutes later. They built up the play toward goal and junior Alex Smedley sent a perfect diagonal through ball to Northrup, who touched his shot from the corner of the six-yard box past the stretched arms of the incoming diving goalie.
“I just had to get around my guy and I saw the goalie coming out and knew I had to chip it,” Northrup said.
The Cougars answered about 10 minutes later to cut the deficit in half. Senior midfielder Jake Kauffman’s right-footed shot from the top of the box deflected off the back of a River Hill defender and froze goalie Patrick Sherlock (five saves).
It was the first goal the Hawks have allowed in the playoffs and first since Oct. 16.
“I think it was important we got two relatively early goals. We kind of did what we wanted to do and then we went out of that unfortunately and they pulled one back. ... The game was physical so we were able to keep our heads and our composure so I’m really happy with that as well.”
Doten had another golden opportunity to score with 8:04 left on a free kick from 19-yard out, but his low shot hit the feet of the defenders on the wall and the Hawks held a 2-1 advantage heading into the second half.
Fallston had River Hill on its heels for the first 15 minutes after the break but couldn’t convert, only to see the Hawks break through on a counter attack with 23:25 remaining. Northrup once again set up the goal by winning a 50-50 ball on the left sideline, and his cross into the box found Smedley deep in the box. He sent a short pass to Doten, who turned and buried his second goal to push the lead to 3-1.
“I think that changed the game, I think that stretched the game out a little bit and it took them out of a little but of what they wanted to do,” Shagogue said. “I think it certainly made a big difference. They brought a new goalkeeper in and he made some really terrific saves. It could’ve been 4-1 or 5-1 but getting that third one was crucial.”
The Cougars’ chances of a comeback diminished greatly because of penalties down the stretch. They had five yellow cards, including two red cards, in the final 17 minutes and finished the match with eight cards handed out against them in what was a physical and talkative contest.
“We just had to stay calm because that game was getting a little out of hand,” Northrup said.
Shagogue, after a long pause, described the game as “intense.”
“The game was physical and we were able to keep our heads and our composure, so I’m really happy with that as well,” he said.