South Carroll had Carroll County's last chance this fall for a boys soccer regional championship, and the Cavaliers needed to knock off mighty Middletown on the road to achieve that goal.
The Knights had other ideas.
Middletown repeated as Class 2A West champs by shutting out the Cavaliers, 3-0, in what turned out to be an emotional end to their season.
Coaches and players shed tears and consoled one another in the moments after the match, a match that the home team played with a high level of energy from start to finish.
The Knights (17-1) possessed the ball for most of the first half and converted a penalty kick with about 6 minutes remaining to grab the lead. Middletown kept its intensity up after the break and struck again midway through the second half.
An extra goal in the final minutes cemented the win and gave the Cavaliers (10-4-3) a sinking feeling. But SC coach Tim Novotny tried to look at the season as a whole.
"For some of them, we've had four years with each other," Novotny said. "For eight of them, I coached them in club. Hopefully we taught them more than the game. Hopefully we taught them how to be good, respectful men."
Middletown attacked South Carroll's defense and cracked it for the first time in the 34th minute. Owen Smith had the ball along the near sideline and split a pair of SC defenders trying to get toward the goal. Smith went down in the box and drew a foul, giving the Knights a penalty kick.
Grant Brandenburg converted the kick — he drilled the ball into the center of the net as Cavs goalie Chris Nunez-Mendez dived to his left.
South Carroll came close to snagging the equalizer early in the second half. Senior forward Alec Sherwin, who had SC's first solid shot on goal less than 5 minutes in, found himself behind Middletown's defense in the middle of the box.
Middletown extended its lead with 18:05 remaining off a corner kick. Luke Ahalt fired the ball in from the near corner and Evan Joseph leaped for a header that got past Nunez-Mendez and the Cavs' back line.
"I thought we matched them well in the first half," said Spencer Gleeson, a senior defender and one of the Cavaliers' captains. "We just couldn't really find the rhythm in that game."
Middletown drew another foul in the box with 16:11 to go, drawing the ire of Nunez-Mendez. The head referee raised a red card on Nunez-Mendez, ending the senior's night.
Junior Brayden Fugini came off the bench and made a penalty kick save on Danny Bertoni, giving South Carroll's fans something to cheer about.
But the Cavs couldn't find their offensive surge, and Ahalt scored with 3:39 remaining for Middletown's final goal.
Middletown celebrated its 13th regional crown, denying South Carroll its sixth region title and third since 2012.
The Cavaliers rode a four-game winning streak into the 2A West final hadn't lost a match on the field in more than a month (they beat county champion Westminster 2-1 on Oct. 10 but had to forfeit for using an ineligible player).
Middletown simply proved too tough, Novotny said, and flashed its talent in several positions on the field.
"I've never seen a team that had seven to eight players with all that speed," SC's coach said. "They're a really, really good team."
Nunez-Mendez made six saves before being ejected. He ripped his gloves off in anger as he left the field, and soon buried his head into his goalie jersey after puling it over his head.
He and the Cavaliers were dejected, but their season was a successful one.
"We started off well, had a little rough patch in the middle, but toward the end it came together," said senior Kevin Morris, another team captain. "It shows how far we made it. We really jelled as a team as we moved on."
Goals: M-Grant Brandenburg, Evan Joseph, Luke Ahalt.