River Hill coach Matt Shagogue decided to make a change earlier in the week before their first playoff game. Senior midfielder Justin Harris, who leads the team in assists with 10, would no longer take corners or restarts that were outside of direct scoring range.
Somehow, Shagogue said, Harris learned how to jump and win head balls this season. Shagogue thought at some point in the team’s playoff run that they would need Harris to put his newfound skill to use to help the undefeated Hawks march on, and that’s exactly what Harris did Thursday night against visiting Oakland Mills.
After already putting River Hill ahead by a goal on a free kick from just outside the box that ricocheted its way into the net, Harris skied over a Scorpions defender and whipped a header into the right side of the goal to extend the lead to two with 16:31 remaining.
“Unbelievable. He was up above everyone, whipping it,” Shagogue said. “I think that broke them.”
The floodgates opened soon after. Junior forward Alex Krause scored his Howard County-leading 15th goal with 10 minutes left, and Austin Weltz’s tally less than three minutes later sealed River Hill’s 4-0 victory over Oakland Mills in the 2A South region, Section I final for the second straight year.
The Hawks (14-0-1) will face Southern-AA at home on Monday in the 2A South regional championship game.
Either Krause or Harris has scored in 14 of the Hawks’ 15 games so far this fall. Krause leads Howard County in goals (15) and points (36), while Harris is second in goals (12), assists (10) and points (34). Krause had numerous scoring chances before breaking through with a goal, but the night belonged to Harris. That was just fine with Krause.
“I mean, stats don’t lie,” Krause said with a laugh. “But really, Justin and I as a combo is just insane. It doesn’t matter who scores, the other one is always going to be there to score another one. ... We just keep on rolling.”
Added Shagogue: “They’re studs. They’re men. I’m not going to lie, I think they both want to score, but in the end I don’t think they score as long as they win, and that’s what it’s about. I think I’ve had like one 15-goal scorer in my 13 years here, and I don’t think they’re done. When they are in a rhythm like that it’s hard to stop them.”
But Harris and Krause haven’t needed to carry the scoring load all by themselves. Fourteen different players have scored for River Hill, which is averaging nearly four goals per game and has outscored opponents 59-6.
“It’s certainly those two, but it’s much more than that,” Shagogue said. “Our back line was great tonight; our goalkeeping was stellar tonight. They’ve all worked so hard and I work them, and work them hard. I’m not easy on them.”
It didn’t look like anybody would score Thursday based on the first half of play. River Hill managed just three shots on goal in the first 40 minutes, but defensively they held Oakland Mills (11-6) in check. The Hawks game planned to funnel everything to the middle of the field to prevent the Scorpions from utilizing their dangerous long throw-ins.
It worked, as senior James Casseus had only four long throw-ins during the game — one more than Shagogue said was the team goal — and River Hill goalie Patrick Sherlock needed to make just two saves to earn his 11th clean sheet.
“They’re a very, very good team,” Oakland Mills coach Don Shea said. “... Their experience, their depth; my starters versus their starters, I thought we were fine. They found weaknesses we had and they exploited them, plain and simple.”
The Scorpions altered their formation and moved three players forward after Harris scored the game’s first goal with 31:13 left, and then “they just broke down completely,” Krause said.
“We kept telling ourselves that it’s going to happen,” he added. “If we score one, then two, three and four are going to come naturally.”
River Hill (14-0-1) — 4, Oakland Mills (11-6) — 0
Goals: RH — Justin Harris 2, Alex Krause, Austin Weltz
Assists: RH — Jed Dixon, Josh O’Brien, Jeff Fuentes
Saves: RH — Patrick Sherlock 2; OM — Daniel Miranda 6
Halftime: 0-0, tie