SMYRNA – For the third consecutive year, Salesianum and Appoquinimink met at Smyrna High School for the DIAA Division I soccer state championship. And, as usual, the Sals and Jaguars played a tight one on the turf at Charles V. Williams Stadium, with Sallies prevailing, 3-2, on a cool Nov. 17 evening. For the Sals, it was their ninth straight state title and 14th in the last 15 years.
Andrew Blackwell scored twice, and Ben Strine connected on a free kick as the Sals held off the determined Jaguars. Appoquinimink was content to play defense in the first half, but after falling behind by two goals early in the second, they turned on the pressure and nearly dethroned their nemesis.
The Sals held a 2-1 lead at halftime, but the Jaguars nearly equalized when Krew Bouldin sent a header that Sals keeper Emmett McCloskey saved in the 44th minute. Andrew Blackwell shot wide for Salesianum a few minutes later, but Sallies would keep the pressure on.
It paid off in the 54th. Casey Kurlej threw the ball in deep down the right side of the field, sending it to Jack Thomas to the left of Appo keeper Eric Fasteson. Thomas directed the ball to Blackwell, who sent a shot into the net to increase the Sals’ lead to 3-1.
“Casey picked it up real quick and threw it into Jack. Jack played it across to me, and it was an easy tap in,” Blackwell said.
The insurance goal would prove to be necessary as the Jaguars got the better of the opportunities as the second half moved on. After some near misses, the Jaguars closed to within one. In the 62nd minute, Cody Niggebrugge’s crossing pass found Matt Meadows a few feet in front of McCloskey, and Meadows’ header squeezed between McCloskey’s fingertips and the crossbar to make it 3-2. McCloskey said he wasn’t worried despite the one-goal margin.
“I always have confidence in my guys. I’m going to do my part, and I know they’re going to do their part, and we’re going to finish,” McCloskey said.
Appoquinimink had a few free-kick chances in the closing minutes, but the Sals’ defense dropped back, rendering the Jaguars’ attackers offsides, and when the final whistle blew, Salesianum had captured its 18th overall soccer crown. It was special for all of the players, especially Strine.
“Having my brother come before me, and getting the chance to be on the same team with him was something special. He got injured, so I just thought it would be more special if I could finish out my year for him, too, given that he couldn’t play in each final,” Strine said.
His brother, James, graduated from Salesianum in 2016. He was a three-year varsity player, like Ben.
This championship tilt started a bit different from the previous two between the schools. Just nine minutes in, Meadows was brought down in the 18-yard box, leading to a penalty kick. McCloskey got a piece of the shot, which bounced off the right post back to Meadows, who sent the rebound into the net for the 1-0 Jags lead.
“After the save I turned around and I saw him get to it,” McCloskey said. “I tried to close him down as quick as possible, but he just beat me to it. It was a good finish, a heads-up play by him.”
No problem, Blackwell insisted. “Once you go down, you want to stay positive and get back in the game as quickly as possible. Luckily, I was able to tap one in real quick, even the game up really early.”
As Blackwell mentioned, he leveled the score with his first goal three minutes after the Jaguars connected. Jack Leonard drilled a ball into the crease in front of Fasteson, and Blackwell was able to redirect it into the net. Appo took a defensive approach in the first half, leading to constant offense for Salesianum but also several defenders in front of the keeper. Kurlej missed wide on a header and Blackwell was blocked by a defender before Sallies struck again.
This time, it was Strine who did the honors. He lined up a free kick from a yard outside the 18-yard box, and, using the Jaguars’ wall and his own teammates as a screen, curled a left-footed blast just inside the left post to give the Sals a 2-1 advantage.
“One of our players actually screened the keeper a little bit, and I saw him take a step, so I knew I could get it to the other corner and that he wouldn’t be able to react,” Strine said. “I’m just glad I put it where I wanted to, and we got the lead.”
The Sals, who finished with a record of 16-2, outshot the Jaguars, 11-5, and had six corner kicks to Appo’s one. McCloskey was credited with three saves. Fasteson had six saves for the Jaguars, who wrapped up the season at 13-3-2.
McCloskey, who like Strine is a senior and a three-year varsity player, said this was what he had hoped for when he chose Salesianum.
“I’m very glad to have been a part of it. Being with these guys is always a treat, and being with (assistant) coach (Justin) Romano and coach (Scott) Mosier, it’s great to work under them,” he said.
Blackwell, a junior, said the pressure and expectations will be the same when the team gets together next August to begin practice for the 2019 campaign.
“We just come out here and play every year, and we’re lucky to keep winning. We’ve got to keep it up and get 10.”