After three of Mike Gamble's shots carried wide of the goal and a fourth grazed off the crossbar in the first half of Thursday's Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinal against Loyola, McDonogh coach Steve Nichols had some words of encouragement for his star senior forward.
"He was trying to crush the ball and make the perfect shot," Nichols said. "I said, 'All you have to do is relax.'"
The advice paid off in the 48th minute, when Gamble chipped an 8-yard shot that caromed off the post, past diving Loyola keeper Sam Hanke and into the right side of the goal to give No. 1 McDonogh a 1-0 victory over the No. 3 Dons in Owings Mills.
It was the Wake Forest recruit's 34th goal of the season.
The win advances McDonogh to Saturday's final against archrival and defending A Conference champ Gilman at Archbishop Spalding. The Greyhounds prevented the Eagles (17-2-1) from earning their sixth title under Nichols last year.
"We are very eager to beat them, but it will be hard," Nichols said. "Gilman defends better than anyone in this league, and they have the best goalkeeper [Andrew Harris] in the country."
Nichols hopes his Eagles can play as well against the Greyhounds as they did against Loyola.
McDonogh outshot the Dons, 13-2, while controlling most of the match and not allowing Loyola (12-4-3) to get off a shot off until the middle of the first half.
"I thought we dominated play," Nichols said. "Obviously, I think we were the much better team. We just have to finish our chances. We should have scored four or five goals."
On the one goal the Eagles did score, Nichols said Gamble was spot-on.
"You couldn't hit it any better than that," he said.
McDonogh's defense proved it could defend a one-goal lead in the final minutes, standing up to the pressure of five long throw-ins by Loyola star Jamie Dubyoski. That followed keeper Matt Sanchez thwarting the Dons' best scoring chance by snagging a ball in the box in the 76th minute to preserve the Eagles' 15th shutout of the season.
"When we play them, it's tough. We have to change our system around a little bit," said Loyola coach Lee Tschantret, whose team split with the Eagles during the regular season. "We just couldn't generate as much offense as we wanted."
No. 2 Gilman needed overtime to get past John Carroll, 1-0, in the other semifinal. Tanner Vosvick scored the game-winner from 12 yards out, placing his shot in the upper-left corner to advance the Greyhounds (18-3-1). Kevin Gambrell made 12 saves and anchored the defense for the Patriots.
MIAA A Conference semifinals
No. 1 McDonogh 1, No. 3 Loyola 0
Goals: McD — Gamble
Saves: McD — Sanchez 2; Loy — Hanke 7