A team as dominant as River Hill boys’ soccer has been this season could easily overlook an opponent and look ahead, even during the do-or-die playoffs. It would be hard to blame the Hawks considering they have outscored opponents 61-7 and have yet to suffer a defeat this fall.
But coach Matt Shagogue won’t allow it, and neither do the senior leaders who remember all too well how last season ended with a 2-0 loss to Eastern Tech in the 2A state championship game.
“It’s a constant reminder even if they don’t need to be reminded, like there is no state championship game if you don’t win this one,” Shagogue said. “We keep saying we’re guaranteed one game and that’s it. Nobody is allowed to talk about anything else.”
That is, until now. The Hawks remained unbeaten and rolled past Hereford, 3-0, Saturday night at home in Clarksville in a 2A state semifinal game to advance to the state final for the second straight year and the 12th time in the last 22 years.
River Hill (16-0-1), which has won nine state championships in 11 finals appearances, will face Oakdale, 1-0 winners over Kent Island in the other semifinal, in the state championship game next week at Loyola University’s Ridley Athletic Complex.
Now the Hawks can talk about what they haven’t been able to since the preseason: winning a state championship.
“It feels pretty good,” Shagogue said. “We came out with a plan and I thought we executed it.”
A slow start plagued the Hawks in their last two playoff victories over Oakland Mills and Southern and did so again against the Bulls (13-5), who controlled much of the first half but never really threatened River Hill senior goalkeeper Patrick Sherlock. But like it did in the regional final, River Hill struck late in the first half and played shutdown defense en route to earning its 12th shutout of the year.
Its fourth corner of the first half was dangerous, and even after a clear the Hawks players remained forward in the box. A pass to Jed Dixon set up an even better touch pass to Julian Elguera, who took a single touch and buried his right-footed shot into the back of the net 3 minutes, 38 seconds before the break.
The Hawks nearly doubled their lead in the last seconds of the half but Hereford goalkeeper Evan Barnard stopped Alex Krause’s breakaway to keep it 1-0 heading into the final 40 minutes.
“The goal toward the end of the first half was huge,” Shagogue said. “[Barnard] made a phenomenal save on Krause in the last five seconds of the half, which would have broken the game I think wide open. But they came in waves and we had to sustain them.”
Hereford did score with about 15 minutes left but the referee ruled Sherlock was pushed on the play and wiped out the goal, and River Hill immediately capitalized and regained the momentum a minute later. Krause’s heads-up play doubled the lead, as he found sophomore Jonah Stoutenborough streaking through the middle of the box for a finish, and 50 seconds after his first tally, Stoutenborough put the game away by scoring again on a turnover by Barnard.
Just like that, the lead ballooned to three.
“It all just came to me,” said Stoutenborough, who nearly doubled his scoring total for the season with his fourth and fifth goals of the year. “We knew if we put one away in the second half, Shagogue said that team isn’t going to come back, and that’s exactly what we had in our plans to do. Score one, score again and keep scoring until the game’s over.”
The Bulls’ best scoring chances came early in the game but they struggled to maintain possession in the Hawks’ final third throughout the contest. Coach Adam Mizell said River Hill’s back line was “mistake free,” and the chances of scoring were further diminished with their leading scorer Niko Hillary out for a fourth straight game.
“We don’t see that much. We’ve played some really good teams this year and of that ilk but it’s been a while,” he said. “We came here and knew we would have to play a near perfect game to win. ... Unfortunately tonight we weren’t able to defensively stay in it. Our attack wasn’t as smooth as you’d like either. We didn’t really give ourselves a chance.”
River Hill will be looking to win its first state title since 2014 when they take the field for their next game. Stoutenborough said this year’s team is more prepared for the final game than they were last season.
“We’re a little more experienced this year. We can just tell we’re a lot more experienced and we want it a lot more, and that’s all we’ve been talking about,” he said. “We want three trophies this year, we’ve already gotten two and now we have our last goal and our last chance to get the third one.”
River Hill (16-0-1) — 3, Hereford (13-5) — 0
Goals: RH — Jonah Stoutenborough 2, Julian Elguera
Assists: RH — Alex Krause, Jed Dixon
Saves: RH — Patrick Sherlock 5; H — Evan Barnard 7
Halftime: 1-0, RH