Down 1-0 at halftime against Dulaney in the 4A North region championship game Tuesday night, Howard coach Nils Schroder’s message to his team was simple: Stop thinking so much and just play soccer.
“We talked about how we had gotten away from doing all the things that got us here. We were holding the ball too much and weren’t unleashing the guys up top, it just wasn’t us out there,” Schroeder said. “We had 40 minutes left and if we were going to go out, I wanted to at least go out playing how I know we can play.”
Taking their coach’s words to heart, the Lions delivered arguably the team’s best closing half of the season.
Scoring three unanswered goals, all within an 11-minute stretch, Howard (8-5-2) earned a come-from-behind 3-1 victory and secured the program’s first region title since 1989.
“It feels great to accomplish what we all knew we could all the way back from the beginning (of the season),” said senior Jordan Griggs, who started the Howard comeback with the tying goal exactly midway through the second half. “All the hard work … it’s really paid off.”
For Dulaney (15-2-1), which was trying to win its first region championship since 2002, the wheels came off incredibly quickly after a promising start. The team had scored in the 11th minute on a pretty shot by Brian Famili, off an assist from Cameron Carter, and had held that advantage well into the second half of play.
But once Griggs broke through with his shot from within a crowd in front of the goal, all the momentum shifted completely in Howard’s favor. The Lions followed with a score by Gavin Boyer, off a feed from Scott Bruner, less than three minutes after their first goal to make it 2-1.
Then, with 9:32 remaining in regulation, Kyle Lowenkron continued the onslaught with a pretty goal off an assist from James Corley to up the Lions’ lead to two.
“I thought we were in control of the game at least through halftime, even into 10 minutes into the second half, but Howard getting that tying goal was the key. We completely lost our focus after that one … Howard was an absolute handful after that,” said Dulaney coach Jerry Tana, who pointed out that he thought Howard’s first goal had gone over the crossbar and hit the football goalpost before bouncing back in front to Griggs and therefore shouldn’t have counted.
The referees conferred on the field and the goal was upheld. After that, Howard never looked back. Griggs says after scoring once, he and his teammates knew the floodgates had been opened.
“It finally felt like we were in the game,” Griggs said. “We get that goal and it was like we all felt like we really had a chance and we just kept going. The energy, everything, just went to another level.”
Dulaney kept pushing to the final whistle and even generated a couple quality-scoring chances that would have tightened things. The best of the bunch was a shot from the top of the box by Brian Kochesfahani with 3:40 left that Howard goalie CJ Bowen corralled with a dive to his left.
Ultimately, the clock ran out with Howard still leading by two and the celebration began.
After winning just one county game a season ago, Schroder was all smiles as he reflected on how far this group has come in an extremely short period of time.
“At the beginning of this season, we won two games right away and the guys probably got ahead of themselves a little bit. But after we lost a few of those close games right after that, I think we did a great job realizing what we had to do in terms of taking it one step at a time,” Schroder said. “To get to this game, knowing we had the chance to do something special, and then not backing down … I’m just so proud of these guys. This is a really special team.”
On the other side, Tana was also extremely proud of his group even in defeat.
“We’ve had a great season, absolutely nothing to hang our heads about,” Tana said. “We lost to a good team and I wish Howard nothing but the best going forward.”