A bitter blow was dealt to George Mason High School’s varsity boys soccer team after they fell 1-0 to Staunton-based Robert E. Lee High School on their home turf to end their season on Monday and dispel any chance at a fifth-consecutive Virginia 2A state title for the program.
In short, Mason (14-3-2) chose a bad day to have a bad game. An aloof opening half saw the Mustangs shy away from the aggressive mindset that guided their strong entrance to the postseason and put the visiting Leemen in control. That deferential approach wound up costing the Mustangs not only momentum, but the biggest game of their season and a chance at continuing a legacy that had charmed an entire generation of high school students.
“It stinks to be the senior leaders that couldn’t get the job done – that’s probably the worst part,” senior defender and co-captain Nico Ferrara said. “Not getting it for everyone else, and being at the helm of that, that’s probably the worst feeling.”
At the start of the game Mason looked engaged. A few well-placed free kicks lured the Leemen goalkeeper off his line and the Mustangs were often a fortunate bounce and an accurate shot away from taking the lead. However, after about 10 minutes of solid chances on offense, Lee recuperated and responded by putting together some impressive advances of their own. Patient passing carried them up the field and a few possessions went deep into the Mustangs’ defensive zone. Lee’s ball movement didn’t amount to a goal right away — though it almost did when a cross was headed in only to be called off due to offensive interference. But it sent a message to Mason loud and clear: Lee came to play, and they weren’t intimidated by the Mustangs’ winning tradition.
In the 18th minute the visitors punctured Mason’s defense for the first and last goal of the game when a Leemen forward willed his way through defenders and fired a shot past senior goalkeeper Walker Hegadorn. The score was a visible gut punch to the Mustangs, who were already a bit shellshocked by their opponents’ intensity and now had to climb their way out of a 1-0 hole that appeared daunting.
“[Lee] was working hard. They beat us to the first couple of balls and sometimes that just gets in your head,” Mason head coach Frank Spinello said. “That’s what we try and do – go out and win the first couple of 50-50 balls and it makes it easier the rest of the night. If you don’t, it gets difficult. That happened to us tonight, [Lee] got the better of us early.”
Mason played at a higher tempo coming out of halftime but wasn’t any sharper, especially on offense. While Lee was able to piece together passes and execute runs on their terms, the Mustangs were aimlessly clearing balls out of their side of the field and hoping one of their forwards or midfielders would track it down before their opponents could. That tactic left Mason at a loss offensively, as they failed to generate any real scoring chances and is what kept the Mustangs without a shot on goal until senior midfielder Olo Sembera Baracco’s free kick from roughly 30-yards out in the 56th minute.
The last 15 minutes of the match saw Mason selling out for a single goal. The back line was playing just past midfield and keeping offensive possessions alive as long as they could, but the Mustangs couldn’t penetrate the final third with any level of composure. Hegadorn made a diving save to keep it a one-goal deficit and sparked some life in Mason, yet no amount of heroics were enough. When the game ended Lee erupted in joy and while the Mustangs were left looking for answers. To Spinello’s knowledge, it was the only home shutout the program had endured in the past seven years.
“We’ve been here so many times we might’ve started off a little complacent, but that’s not an excuse,” Ferrara added. “We just weren’t there mentally.”
A 1-0 win over Central High School for the Conference 35 title last Thursday will serve as a nice token from the 2017 season. But a chance to reclaim their state title dominance will have to wait until next year.