With the final week of the regular season coming up in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference soccer play, No. 1 Mount Saint Joseph’s visit to defending champ and No. 4 McDonogh had a little more vigor Friday.
It also had a mix of nervous play, quality goals and suspense all the way to the final minute with first place on the line in the league’s Red Division.
When McDonogh senior back Matt Owusu sent the last ball out of the defensive end, the host Eagles were finally able to enjoy a solid 80 minutes that resulted in a 3-2 win over the Gaels.
Junior midfielder Richie Nichols scored a first-half goal and then assisted on Mason Christian’s game-winner in the second as McDonogh fended off a late Mount Saint Joe surge to stay in first place.
The Eagles (11-4-1) improve to 9-3 for 27 points in league play and are positioned to wrap up the division and a first-round bye with a win over St. Paul’s in their regular-season finale Friday.
Mount Saint Joe (10-3-1) is 7-3-1 for 22 points with league games against St. Paul’s on Wednesday and Archbishop Spalding on Friday.
After their second two-goal lead was cut in half with eight minute left, the Eagles had no choice but to leave everything they had on the field with the Gaels urgently doing the same in an unsuccessful bid to tie.
“We had to dig deep,” said Nichols, who largely controlled the middle in addition to his work on the stat sheet. “When you play St. Joe on our grass, couple hundred people watching and playing for [a top seed], there’s always going to be hard work involved and I think we did pretty well in that category.”
The visiting Gaels will mostly look back to their tough time finishing scoring chances in the first half — coach Mike St. Martin counting four ideal chances — to get the first goal and momentum.
Instead, the Eagles, who also had early chances go for naught, broke through late in the first half with two goals in a three-minute stretch.
Junior Joel Brown got past a couple defenders to get deep in the penalty area on the left side and made one final touch to set up a left-footed strike that got inside the near post for a 1-0 lead with 6:43 to play.
Moments later, Nichols took an entry pass from Vincent Petrera with his back to the goal before quickly turning and finding the right corner for a 2-0 advantage.
As soon as the Gaels found a positive to work with — Miles Lam scoring with 22 minutes left to cut the lead to 2-1 — McDonogh answered less than three minutes later when Nichols’ free kick from 35 yards was right at the 6-yard mark for Christian to head home.
“Richie put in a great ball. When you have a great center midfielder like him, he makes my job a little easier,” Christian said. “He put the ball in a good spot, I was lucky to get my head on it and I got a good goal. I’m just lucky to have teammates like him and the coaching staff behind us and we’re ready for the playoffs.”
Both coaches had positives to build on from the rest of the game. The Gaels once again made it a one-goal game when Brett Callahan (one goal, one assist) scored with 8:05 to play to give the visitors a chance.
St. Martin was pleased to see his team never surrender and McDonogh coach Brandon Quaranta liked the needed poise his team showed in the closing minutes to secure the win.
“I told the group, we grew up a little bit,” Quaranta said. “Today I think was a step forward in that direction of an 80-minute effort and defending late moments against a really excellent team that was coming on and trying to tie the game, so it was great.”
After taking over the No. 1 spot in the Top 15 poll this week by winning four straight league games by a 19-1 margin, the Gaels will regroup. And despite the lack of finishing in the first half and the uncharacteristic poor marking on a couple of the Eagles goals, they gave themselves a chance all the way to the end.
“To their credit, we kept fighting,” St. Martin said. “That’s one thing I told them at halftime is no matter what we’re going to fight to the end and they did. The bounces just weren’t going our way today, but credit McDonogh — it’s on their home field and they took care of their chances.”