The top soccer teams in the tough Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference are so close this season that the difference between a win and loss often comes down to the smallest details.
The team that wins the individual battles, breaks through when an opportunity is presented and best handles the pressure gets rewarded.
First place was on the line Thursday when No. 1 McDonogh played host to No. 2 Loyola, and it was the visiting Dons who were victorious.
Sophomore Ryan Conrad provided a first-half goal and a strong defensive effort came in the second half, enabling Loyola to earn a 1-0 win over the Eagles.
It's Loyola's second 1-0 victory over McDonogh in less than two weeks and puts the Dons (11-3-2 overall, 8-2-2 in the league) in sole possession of first place with 26 points. The Eagles (10-2-3, 7-2-3) drop back to second place with 24 points, followed by Archbishop Curley (11-3-2, 7-2-2) with 23 points and Gilman (11-2-4, 6-2-4) with 22 points after a 2-1 upset loss at Archbishop Spalding on Thursday. One week remains in the regular season.
"That puts us up in first place, but we can still drop to fourth. That's really how close it is this season. It's been a great year and why kids want to play in the MIAA because every game is a great battle," Loyola coach Lee Tschantret said.
Unable to finish off a chance moments earlier, Conrad made the most of his next opportunity with his fifth goal of the season in the game's 11th minute. Running on to a ball sent in from the right side by Peter Gagnon, Conrad had his first shot turned aside by McDonogh goalie Matt Sanchez (nine saves) before he pounded home the rebound that came right back.
Strong play in the midfield from Gavin Barger and Andrew Rueling helped limit the Eagles' time and space throughout the game. And when the home team pushed forward with more chances in the second half, the Loyola defense stayed strong with goalie Chris Girken finishing with five saves.
The Dons were without standout central defender Michael DeGraffenreidt, who was serving the last of a two-game suspension for an on-field incident. Riley Collins filled in for DeGraffenreidt, and Tony Butta provided support. Girken made a diving save on a direct kick from 20 yards taken by Connor Smith that was headed for the far corner with 15 minutes to play, and then he dived to make a save on a shot from Erumuse Momoh with 7:15 left.
"Defense was the key thing — everyone played phenomenal," Girken said. "Riley stepped in for Michael and he did a great job, he got everything out. [Tony] Butta also did a great job — everyone was talking, everyone was a family today, so it was great."
2 Loyola 1, 1 McDonogh 0
Goals: L -- Conrad
Assists: L -- Gagnon
Saves: L – Girken 5; M – Sanchez 9
Half: L, 1-0.