While the George Mason High School boys varsity soccer team emerged from their Bull Run District regular season schedule with an unbeaten mark of 10-0-0, they were not untested during that stretch. Tuesday night in the district tournament semifinals, the Rappahannock Panthers relentlessly challenged the Mustangs, giving the defending district champions all they could handle at times. However, just as in the regular season, Mason earned the win, 3-1, and advances to host Thursday night’s final against Clarke County.
Both teams seemed tentative to start the match, with neither side mustering much in the way of scoring chances. That changed at the 17-minute mark, when Mason broke the scoreless tie on a goal by sophomore Teddy Rueckert.
The Mustangs’ Nick Smirniotopoulos sent the ball into the box from the right side with a bicycle volley. Rueckert corralled it and fired it off a defender and into the goal.
The goal was the first solid offensive change of the game for either team, but the chances began to open up for Mason in the minutes following that first strike. However, Rappahannock’s keeper kept Mason off the board for the remainder of the half.
Three minutes after the first goal, Smirniotopoulos unleashed a left-footed shot that was snuffed out after a dive, followed by another rush down the right side two minutes later that resulted in a Smirniotopoulos shot that struck the outside of the net.
Smirniotopoulos’ best chance of the first half came at the 24-minute mark when he controlled the ball at the left side of the box and shot the ball to the goal’s far side. The shot seemed destined for the upper-right corner of the goal, but he was again stymied by the keeper, who snared it with a fully-extended, diving grab.
Smirniotopoulos finally broke through seven minutes into the second half, breaking past a pair of defenders and placing the ball in the net to give the Mustangs a cushion. Mason would need that margin, as their two-goal lead was short-lived.
Less than a minute after Smirniotopoulos’ goal, the referee signaled for a penalty against the Mustangs inside the goal box, giving the Panthers’ a free kick against Mason freshman goalie Tyler Back. Back sprawled to his left to stop the initial shot, but couldn’t cover up the loose ball in time and Rappahannock pushed it over the line to make the match 2-1.
“We still don’t know what the call was,” Mason Head Coach Art Iwanicki said after the game. He jokingly added, “We’re going to have to go upstairs and check the video tape for further review.”
Iwanicki ended the night in good spirits thanks to an insurance goal by senior Matt Gresko in the final 10 minutes of the match. Smirniotopoulos perfectly bent a head-high cross to a streaking Gresko. Gresko met the ball in full stride and launched it with tremendous force past the keeper on the short side for the goal.
Prior to that final nail in Rappahannock’s coffin, the Mustangs had to be sharp to stave off the Panther attack, rejuvenated in the wake of their goal. After seeing his shutout streak end at four games, Back was poised in his first varsity postseason match, confidently handling several long-distance scoring chances by Rappahannock. A rocket shot from 45-yards out seemed destined to sneak under the top bar, but Back managed to tip the shot over the goal and out of bounds.
“He’s grown an awful lot during this season and he’s an integral part of this team,” Iwanicki said. “The boys are all confident in him.”
The Mustangs, who already secured a berth in the Region B tournament thanks to their regular season title, meet Clarke County at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 22 in the Bull Run District finals. The Eagles were 4-3 winners over Madison County on Tuesday.
A win Thursday would give Mason a home match on Monday in the opening round of the Region B Tournament, while a loss would send them on the road to Wilson Memorial.
Should the Mustangs win their opening round match in regionals, they are expected to receive a significant boost in their semi-final game next Wednesday with the return of senior striker Antonio Randrianasolo. Previously it was thought that Randrianasolo was lost for the season after suffering a fractured heel in the final home game of the regular season on May 9. Now, after a second series of X-rays revealed that he had no fracture after all, he’s set to begin training again on Friday.