It wasn’t pretty, but the George Mason High School boys soccer team will take any road they can get on, so long as it ultimately leads to the state championship.
After 64 scoreless minutes to start Saturday afternoon’s group A semifinal against Stonewall Jackson High School at Radford University’s Patrick D. Cupp Stadium, a tangle-up inside the Stonewall box gave Mason a chance to finally put themselves in the lead.
Junior forward Nick Smirniotopolous received a long pass from senior defender Thomas Kim and made a move toward the goal before being tripped up by a Stonewall defender. The referee promptly blew his whistle and awarded the Mustangs with a penalty kick.
Junior midfielder Andrew Arias calmly lined up his shot in front of the goal, approached the ball, and struck it into the bottom left 90 of the net past the outstretched hands of a diving Hayden Miller.
As the shot hit the net the various homemade noisemakers in the Mason cheering section erupted, and the Mustangs were 16 minutes away from appearing in the state championship game for the first time in four years, clinging on for a 1-0 win, the second time in over a week that they had defeated the Generals in postseason play.
“I’ve always been more comfortable going to the left,” Arias said when asked about his goal. “I’ve been taking PK’s in practice all year and I’ve always nailed them from that side. I knew the goalkeeper could get a little bit clumsy so I just aimed it low to the corner and I knew he wasn’t going to get it.”
“I knew it was going to go in,” senior co-captain Anthony Andrianarison said. “I don’t think he’s ever missed a PK in practice. Elio [Randrianasolo] and I were talking about it before, who would take the PK, and we only had one guy in mind: Arias.”
The match was back and forth for most of the afternoon, as neither team able to maintain control for long stretches. Stonewall was on the attack early on, but came up empty after two leaping grabs by Back in a crowd of Stonewall defenders.
“I don’t know how anyone has scored on them this year, their defense is pretty intimidating,” Stonewall coach Nate Hissong said. “Defense wins championships and it may get them the win tomorrow [against Radford in the state title].”
Following the hold, Mason made an early charge of its own on some good ball movement which set up an open shot for Smirniotopolous. Smirniotopolous moved to the center of the field with the ball and took a slicing shot toward the right side of the goal, but the shot hooked too much and soared past the right of the sidebar.
“We focused on trying to let the ball do more of the work in the last match, whereas in the last match we tried to do more two-touch passing and moving the ball as a team,” Hissong said. “We definitely did that better today, the size of the field helped us, we were able to take advantage of it pretty well. Unfortunately, [Smirniotopolous] is a tremendous player, so dangerous on the counter-attack and they got a penalty kick for his strong solo efforts.”
On the ensuing Stonewall possession, the Generals got as close to scoring a goal as they would the rest of the match. Junior midfielder Caleb Golladay and forward Armando Moreno-Paniagua wove their way deep into the Mason side of the field, and Golladay eventually fired a shot high, down the center of the goal which was rejected by senior Jack Cashin who came into the goal to assist his sophomore goalkeeper.
“I think we had missed opportunities, had some looks through a strong Mason defense when [Andrianarison] went up in the middle through the attack and we were able to counter pretty quickly and that was part of our game plan for the second half,” Hissong said.
“I feel like our defense today, especially Jack [Cashin] was very committed,” Back added. “He kept his feet and was really able to contain [Moreno-Paniagua] and [junior midfielder Patrick Bain].”
As the first half wore on, Back made several more emphatic saves on shots from Moreno-Paniagua, Bain and freshman Lupe Cardoso.
“Tyler Back– Hands down, he’s the best goalie in the state,” Arias said about his second-year keeper. “He kept us in the game today. He’s been doing that all season and we owe it to him.”
The first half turned out scoreless despite a combined 12 shots on goal between the two sides in the 40 minutes of play.
Mason came out with a new found energy in the second half, quickly working their way deep into Stonewall territory. Cashin wove through the Generals back four and passed the ball of to junior Alex Casteuble who was open, waiting in the center of the field for a chance to break the deadlock. Casteuble rocketed a slicing shot toward the goal only to have the shot stopped by Miller.
“I got the ball in the middle and I looked up real quick,” Casteuble said. “There was no one running so I decided I was just gonna’ rip it- I wanted to try and put it in the corner, but I guess I just didn’t get around it enough so it went too much towards the goalie. It was a good save though; I thought it was going in, but props to the keeper [Miller].”
After Casteuble’s near goal, Stonewall snatched some momentum back, outshooting Mason 4-2 in the first 20 minutes of the second half. However, they would not have anything to show for their open shots as Cashin and Back continued to make saves.
“Tyler had an amazing game, probably the best we’ve seen him all season,” Andrianarison said. “I know he’s going to come out better tomorrow. Jack Cashin, Thomas, and Patrick, that’s what they do. They usually go unnoticed but we have four defenders that play really well.”
Arias would be the centerpiece of the Mustang offense for the remainder of the game. He had one sinking shot smothered by Miller in the middle of the goal, and another shot toward the right corner that got past Miller, but hit off the front of the right post.
“I was running up and there was an open space so I sprinted toward it,”Arias said about his near goal. “I got the ball I saw that wide gap to the keepers left and I tried to hit it there but I guess I got a little bit unlucky.”
In crunch time, Stonewall created several potential game tying shots but there would be no miracle as they sent two shots soaring over the top of the goal in the final minute and a half. Junior midfielder Caleb Golladay missed high with forty seconds left and dropped to his knees, knowing that that would be it.
As time expired, Cashin booted the ball across the field and from there the celebration was on. The Mustangs escaped with a 1-0 win to move onto the state championship where they will take on Radford High School, who beat Virginia High 4-0 in their semi-final match later in the day.
“We just have to play our game,” Andrianarison said about tomorrow’s matchup with the defending state champions. “Hopefully tomorrow will be the game where we come out fired up in the first half. We usually wait until the second half to do that, but if we come out in the first half, it’s going to be a good game, that’s all I can say.”
It will be an all Mason-Radford state final in Single A soccer this year at Radford U. The girls game will take place at 10:00, followed by the boys state championship at 12:00.