Vengeance, Victory Belong to Mustangs as Mason High Secures Berth in State Tournament For First Time Since 2005
After 100 minutes of evenly played soccer, after 100 minutes of near misses, hard tackles and frenzied fans showing their support with snare drums and strained vocal chords, the George Mason boys varsity soccer team punched its ticket to the Virginia Class A State Tournament with a 2-1 victory over Nelson County on penalty kicks in the semifinals of the Region B Tournament Wednesday night.
Juniors Anthony Andrianarison, Elio Randrianasolo and sophomore Nick Smirniotopoulos all converted Mason’s first three penalty kicks after the teams ended regulation, 10 minutes of overtime and 10 more minutes of sudden death overtime tied at one. Meanwhile, the first Nelson County try by Luke Longanecker sailed high and the second, taken by Daniel Eggleston, was saved by a diving Alex Casteuble, inserted as goalkeeper solely to defend the penalty kicks. When the third Nelson County penalty attempt from Koda Kerl screamed wide of the goal to clinch the match for Mason, the Mustangs stormed from the sidelines, stripping their jerseys in mid sprint and piling onto each other in celebration.
“The boys worked really hard tonight,” Mason Head Coach Art Iwanicki said after the game. “They deserved it.”
The clash between the two Single A powers exceeded even its epic billing and demanded the utmost effort from both teams. Both Nelson County (10-3-2) and Mason (15-2-1) harbored state championship aspirations entering the contest, though only the winner of Wednesday’s contest could reach the Virginia Class A state tournament that begins next week.
Nelson County struck first, scoring in the match’s second minute. As Mason senior Matt Gresko failed to clear the ball with a header, Nelson County sophomore Juan Garcia seized on the opportunity and blasted the ball into the net. The Mustangs evened the match at the 20 minute mark on a fluky goal. Senior defender Tim Brooks sent a long ball towards the Nelson County net from more than 35 yards away. Nelson County keeper Garth Phillips appeared to have control, but the ball proved elusive and wound up crossing the goal line.
“I did not see it go in,” Brooks said. “I thought the goalkeeper had it. I turned around and started to head back. When I turned my head to watch the punt, I saw he had dropped it and it was in the goal.”
The remainder of the match was a balanced and thrilling affair that fueled, and was fueled by, a rowdy and raucous contingent of fans supporting both teams. Drums, horns and near constant cheering drove the players onward as regulation drew to a close.
“I think most would agree that the match could have gone either way,” Hauschner said. “Mason is definitely a good team with tons of talent and it was a fun and exciting match for all involved.”
The Mustangs controlled possession for the majority of the second half and the overtime periods, however Nelson County was not without its scoring chances and even led the unofficial shot count, 17-14. With roughly 17 minutes remaining in the second half, Nelson County breached the Mason back line and deposited the ball into the Mason net, however the goal was waived off when the Nelson County striker was ruled offsides.
Four minutes later, Nelson County strung together a salvo of three scoring chances, but a scrambling Tyler Back, Mason’s impressive freshman keeper, and on-the-spot stops from Mason defense kept all three shots from entering what appeared to be a wide open net. A similar sequence at the with 11 minutes remaining saw Back charge a Nelson County attacker, sliding to stop the initial shot, while defender Wesley Frank positioned himself perfectly to clear the shot attempt on the rebound.
Mason likewise squandered chances to score in crunch time. Brooks missed an open net when he corralled a loose ball in the box with just under four minutes remaining, but fired a shot parallel to the goal line and out of bounds. Several free kicks taken by Casteuble flirted with the goal, but one sailed just high and another hit the cross bar with under 20 seconds left in regulation. Mason’s Andrew Arias got a head to the rebound, but it bounced high over the bar, setting the stage for overtime, when Casteuble again just missed placing free kicks into the net.
“Normally when you miss those chances you lose,” Iwanicki said. “The soccer gods were with us tonight.”
However it was more than luck that sent the Mustangs to their first state tournament since 2005. The Mason program’s preparedness gets at least equal credit for the win.
Heading into the penalty kicks, Iwanicki opted to replace the freshman Back with Casteuble, a first-rate keeper who had spent the entire season in the field. The move was a calculated one, decided upon on during Tuesday’s practice.
“I’ve been saying since the beginning of the year he’s the best keeper on the team,” Iwanicki said.
Talented or not, it was a precarious position in which to insert the sophomore, though he rose to the challenge by saving the second penalty attempt.
“I knew there was a possibility I’d be playing in practice on Tuesday and when they handed me the gloves I knew the coach had put his trust in me,” Casteuble said.
The coaching staff armed him with more than confidence, however, with assistant coach Frank Spinello relaying his scouting report prior to the first two Nelson County shooters’ attempts.
“He told me the first guy would shoot to my left and the second would shoot right,” said Casteuble. “I guess I’ll give him some credit for that one.”
It was all little consolation for Hauschner, who was surprised the match didn’t fall in his team’s favor after advancing to penalty kicks.
“We have not missed a penalty kick this season, and then my best three penalty kickers all miss tonight,” Hauschner said. “This was the most ironic of all since we have put a lot of time into this over the season. I guess the pressure and time of the game just wore my kids down. You have to remember that basically 13 of my players played over 110 minutes of play before the shootout. We are not afforded the quality bench that is usually on the Mason side. This may have taken its toll on us.”
With the win, the Mustangs avenged last season’s ouster by Nelson County in the Region B Tournament and also eliminates what might be their stiffest competition for the state title. After the game, Brooks likened their Single A opponent to another foe from the 2008 season, AAA power Robinson High School.
“I believe this was harder than Robinson though, since we didn’t have anything riding on the Robinson game,” Brooks said.
Now, Mason advances to the Region B final to be played Friday at 7 p.m. at Mason’s Moore Cadillac Stadium. The Mustangs will face Goochland, 6-2 winners over Wilson Memorial in the other Region B semifinal. Win or lose, Mason will advance to the state tournament scheduled to begin June 3.
The gritty match and thrilling outcome however only leaves Nelson County eager for an opportunity to meet up with Mason next season.
“I think there may be a good chance in the future that we will meet again and we look forward to it,” Hauschner said. “We would like to play Mason on our turf sometime.”