MORGANTOWN — Although the early evening weather was sunny and hot at Pony Lewis Field at J.W. Ruby Stadium for the boys’ soccer match between Morgantown and Buckhannon-Upshur, the collective mood after the opening whistle might’ve been a bit more feisty.
After all, both teams came into the match with sub-.500 records, which nearly always notches up the intensity level, especially so early (surly?) in the season.
While the physicality did pick up in the second half, it was Morgantown’s overall technical skill and fitness that eventually led to Nico Toro’s game-winning goal off a perfect cross from Jacob Zerkel, as MHS prevailed, 1-0.
Morgantown (2-2) generated the majority of the quality chances in the scoreless first half, and nearly scored twice in the first twelve minutes, but Bucs keeper Logan Kelley registered a trio of solid right arm reaction saves to tip shots wide and over the crossbar. B-U (1-4), concentrating their offensive counter attack around speedy forward Alek Seech, looked dangerous in the 21st minute when a set piece serve into the box took several tense moments to be cleared. The Mohigans dominated possession but seemed to bunch offensively, and the final connecting pass remained elusive.
Perhaps the best chance for either team came four minutes before the half when a miscue allowed B-U’s Ryan Hurst a 40-yard breakaway, but MHS keeper John McConnell courageously roared off his line to smother the ball at the top of the box to keep the match nil-nil.
Kelley, who registered five high-quality saves in the match, came up big again early in the second half, tipping a well-struck header up in the air, then recovering his balance and gathering it in at the goal line. In the 58th minute, another back line breakdown gave Hurst another chance, but a strong challenge from the covering center back forced him to hurry his shot, which just missed wide left.
That near miss seemed to inspire the Mohigans, and in the 62nd minute, a quick build up through midfield allowed Daniel Polinski to feed a pretty ball into space for Zerkel to run onto down the left side. The junior sped all the way to the goal line about five yards inside the box, then spied his fellow junior forward racing toward the goal mouth ahead of two BU defenders. Zerkel’s cross found Toro’s right foot, and he made no mistake, drilling the winner into the open cage.
The Bucs pressed for the equalizer down the stretch, but the Mohigans defense was solid, and any shots that got through were gobbled up by McConnell, who finished his clean sheet with eight saves.
All in all, a solid, encouraging victory for the young, emerging Mohigans, according to coach Sam Snyder, who happily earned his first-ever regular season W over B-U.
“We recently installed some new roles and new formations,” he explained. “With only four starters back from last year, it’s taken a while to figure out everybody’s strengths, and the mistakes we’ve made so far this year have been my fault for not having guys in the right spots. But we are a fit, tough, technically sound team, and we all pull for each other, so it was good to get rewarded.”
Polinski, the senior midfielder described by Snyder as “the engine, the one who moves back and forth like a pendulum, cleaning up defensively and activating our forwards,” thought his team adapted well into their new roles.
“We communicated better, and did a real good job in the attacking third in the first half,” he said. “We were disappointed that we couldn’t finish, because we could’ve had the game under control in the first half, but we buried our chance when it came late, and then buttoned up defensively to close it out. Feels good to play well and win.”
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be,” Snyder added, “but this was a promising first step, and I can see us starting to gel. I know the effort and the attitude is there, so we just need to keep learning and growing.”
Morgantown heads to Preston at 6 p.m. to face the Knights, then returns home at 6 p.m. Thursday against Parkersburg South.