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Marriotts Ridge boys soccer beats Centennial 1-0 to complete improbable county title run

In the Howard County championship game Friday night, the third post was the charm for Marriotts Ridge.

In a span of four minutes in the middle stages of the second half against Centennial, the Mustangs had three shots clang off a goal post. It was only on the third attempt that the ball — instead of caroming wide like the previous two had — ricocheted off the bar and in.

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Marriotts Ridge senior defender Robby Groman fired home his first goal of the season off the left post with 26:48 left in the second half for the lone score in a 1-0 victory over the Eagles that secures the Mustangs the program’s first county title since 2013.

“The momentum was absolutely there and we just kept getting corner kicks and throw-ins, which is something we work on a lot. So I don’t think we got frustrated about hitting the posts, it just made us push even harder,” Groman said. “I’m not a goal scorer, that’s not my job usually. But I just was in the right place at the right time and when the ball came to my foot, I knew that was my moment.”

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The shutout win for ninth-seeded Marriotts Ridge (6-5) over second-seeded Centennial (8-2) completed a magical tournament run. The Mustangs, who only got into the bracket once the field was expanded from eight to 12 teams following the final game of the regular season, won four straight games after winning only two of their first seven this spring.

With each passing contest, however — including a 2-1 overtime victory over undefeated Mount Hebron in the quarterfinals — Marriotts Ridge became more and more confident.

“I’m not too much of a believer in fate and destiny. No, for these guys it’s all been about hard work and belief. Believing that if we sacrifice for one another then anything is possible … and I’m not sure how many people outside this team thought this was possible when we were sitting at 1-5 a month ago,” said Marriotts Ridge coach Quinn Khouri, whose team beat Howard in penalty kicks in the semifinals. “They left no doubt out there today, though. They proved they belonged.”

Up against a Centennial team that had beaten it 4-2 earlier this spring, Marriotts Ridge looked like a different squad in the championship contest.

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The Mustangs controlled the middle behind leaders Kaden Bryan and Cody Blessing, while the defensive unit spearheaded by Groman limited the touches of Eagles’ leading scorer Bryson Baker. Baker, one of the top scorers in the county, had a goal and two assists in the first meeting.

This time around, he had little room to operate and managed only one shot during a scoreless opening half. Then, after intermission, the Mustangs shifted into a different gear offensively to begin creating the kind of chances that eventually led to the decisive score.

“They had a defensive plan to try and take Bryson out of the game and I thought they controlled the midfield well, but it really came down to those set piece opportunities. It was obvious that’s how they wanted to force the action,” Centennial coach Justin Thomas said. “And, on the whole, I really credit my defense with how they handled being under a lot of pressure. They withstood a lot. But when you are defending for such long spells, you are prone to having something happen.”

Bryan hit the crossbar with 31 minutes left in the second half to start the Mustangs’ offensive frenzy. Two minutes later, William Song had a header skip off the right post.

Those plays simply set the stage for what was to come.

On the deciding play, Blessing curled a corner kick toward the near post. The ball was initially deflected out by Centennial defender Edwin Aguilar, but it went right to Groman in the middle of the box and he was ready to one-touch it home.

“If you keep putting the ball in dangerous areas, the odds say eventually something good is going to happen. Now, when you hit two posts in a row, that can be tough. But there was a confidence we had today that never wavered,” Khouri said. “I think they wanted to prove that we weren’t just some nine-seed fluking their way into the championship.”

Centennial pushed forward over the final 25 minutes, but simply never found the room needed to break through. It ended up as only the third time all season that the Eagles have been held under two goals and the second time they have been shut out.

The county championship tournament format this spring was a first for Howard County soccer, instituted in an attempt to provide a postseason atmosphere during the truncated season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ironically, the last time the county played a winner-take-all county championship game in 2008, it was also the Mustangs who walked away as champions.

In some ways, it was almost fitting that in an unprecedented season setup that there would end up being an unprecedented champion. And as Groman reflected on the remarkable title run, he couldn’t help but get a little emotional.

“We thought for the longest time we weren’t going to even have a season and then when we did finally start playing we lost all those close games and I honestly thought we were out of it,” Groman said. “Then we got word they were expanding things and it just started to feel like maybe it was meant to be. Almost like we had a second chance for a reason. It’s been such a tough senior year for all of us … so yeah, this right here means more than anything.

“It’s something I know that I will never forget.”

No. 9 Marriotts Ridge 1, No. 2 Centennial 0

Goal: MR — Robby Groman.

Assist: MR — Cody Blessing.

Saves: MR — Zach Sloan 3; C — Parker Gerrity 7.

Half: 0-0.

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