SMYRNA – It was a tale of two halves in the state Division I soccer championship match Nov. 19 at Smyrna High School, and the Salesianum side wrote both stories. On a cold, windy and rainy night in central Delaware, the top-ranked Sals scored a goal with the rain and wind at their backs, then played even better with the elements in their faces on the way to a 2-0 win over Appoquinimink.
The win gave Salesianum its seventh straight state championship, 13th in the past 15 years, and 16th overall. The Sals finished the season with a record of 16-1-1. The only loss came to Boulder (Colo.) in the second game of a two-day trip to Colorado, and the tie was against St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.), one of the best teams in the country.
Salesianum opened the game with a stiff wind and a driving rain behind them. The ball rarely left the Sals’ offensive end during the first 40 minutes, as goal kicks from Appo keeper Jason Sommer were smothered by the wind, and a tight checking game prevented the Jaguars forwards from mounting much of an offensive foray.
Still, it took the Sals a bit to get used to the elements. Time and again, passes that normally would hit the turf and slow as they approached the end line skipped off the surface and sailed long. They missed on a few early attempts, as Andrew Gantert missed wide to the far side in the seventh minute, while Bryce Wallace sent a half-volley just wide a few minutes later.
Salesianum was unable to convert on a series of corner kicks as the half progressed, and one goal was disallowed on an offsides call, but it seemed like a matter of time before the team scored. That finally came in the 25th minute. Senior Jason Blackwell sent a shot at Sommer from about 25 yards out. The keeper was able to turn it away but not control it, and junior Gavin Ford was rushing in anticipating the rebound. He chipped the loose ball over Sommer and into the net for the 1-0 advantage.
“The first half, it was pretty windy, and every shot, it seemed like he couldn’t catch anything. So after every shot I was looking to get any rebounds, and luckily I got one,” Ford said.
With his goal, Ford continued an incredible streak in championship games. For the third straight year, he scored the eventual winning goal. Two years ago, Ford scored against Caesar Rodney in the 78th minute to break a 1-1 tie, and last year against Wilmington Charter, he converted a free kick for the team’s first goal in an eventual 2-0 victory.
Appo figured to have an advantage in the second half by not having to play into the wind and rain, but Salesianum improved its play to keep the Jaguars at bay. The Sals kept their passes short and low, avoiding getting the ball up into the wind, where it could be blown anywhere. Keeper Gavin Campbell did not take any unnecessary goal kicks, choosing instead to play it along the ground by hand whenever allowed. Defensively, the Sals stuffed the backfield with players and prevented Appo from generating any quality chances, leaving a few players upfield to go the other way if the opportunity presented itself.
Ford said the style they played in that second half fit the team’s philosophy.
“We practice a lot on our passing and keeping the ball on the ground, even when it’s not like this, so when we got to the second half, Coach (Scott Mosier) told us to play our normal style,” he said.
The Sals were called for several offsides, but in the 60th minute they were able to add the insurance goal. This time, sophomore Jack Leonard sent a through ball ahead of Blackwell, who remained onside and chipped one over the approaching Sommer.
Ford nearly added his second goal in the 67th minute when he got Sommer off his line, dribbled around him and blasted one low toward the near corner. A Jaguars defender came flying across the crease and slid to knock the ball out of harm’s way.
Salesianum had 12 shots and Appoquinimink zero, and the Sals attempted 11 corner kicks to the Jags’ three. Campbell was not called on to make a single save. The Jaguars’ season ended at 15-3.
Blackwell said he’s been attending Salesianum soccer games since middle school, and he didn’t want to be part of a team that loses the program’s grip on the state title. They weren’t going to let some wind and rain get in their way.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” Blackwell said. “We didn’t want to sit back. We knew we were a better team, even though they were a hell of a team tonight. There was no way we were losing this game.”