BECKLEY, W.Va. – Hopes were high for the University boys’ soccer team as they snapped a three-year streak of getting knocked out in the state semifinals, avenging last year’s playoff loss to Cabell Midland, 2-1. On the other side awaited No. 1 George Washington, looking to secure another state title after downing No. 4 Jefferson in their semifinals bout.
It happened fast, as the Patriots quickly surmounted a lead the Hawks would struggle to come back from in the face of the best defense in the state, eventually falling 5-0. Still, despite being down five goals, a senior UHS captain could be heard echoing through the stands, “Keep fighting!”
And for a day of many mixed emotions, coach Michael Smith’s main thought was of how proud he was of his team.
“I don’t want to understate it, but this is the most important group of seniors to come through this program,” Smith said. “I’m extremely proud of what they’ve displayed the last four years and am proud of the way they finished out the game. It was an emotional day, and I’m proud of everything they contributed. They should be proud of themselves; their families should be proud of them; University High School should be proud of them. It sucks it had to end this way, but there’s only one other team that made it as far as we did. I think they’ll look back on it and be proud.”
The first half was the tale of the game, as GW sank four goals in the first 30 minutes and shut out the Hawks’ aggressive attack. Like the semifinals, the Hawks’ played a little too aggressive in the closing half, giving up a goal off a penalty kick – the Patriots’ final of the half.
The second half allowed George Washington to play a little more calm on offense, picking up their fifth and final goal at the 20-minute mark. The final 20 minutes of the game saw GW’s defense do what they did throughout the other 60 minutes, and the Patriots cruised to yet another state title.
“It became obvious [in the team meeting Friday night] that we weren’t going to dominate possession,” Smith said. “We’ve had a couple of games like that this year – they’re a deep, skilled team and we knew our defense would be under attack for large portions of the game, which, to be fair, we’re comfortable with. We knew there would be opportunities for counter-attack, and to be honest, early on in the game it seemed like we would be able to exploit what we needed to keep the game close. But hats off to GW, from everything I saw on film that was the best game I’ve seen them play.”
Smith spent all afternoon following his team’s win over Cabell Midland studying GW, figuring out where the Patriots fell short and the chances they missed. After strategizing with his team in the evening, they found a fresh team awaiting them, or as Smith recalled, “Chances they were missing in other games, they weren’t missing [Saturday].”
“Big teams show up in big moments, and they certainly did that,” he added.
As Smith looked back to the season, most of his thoughts were about the senior group that’s been battling for a state title for the last three years. According to Smith, before 2016, the Hawks had only been to a state championship game once and had only won the sectional title twice in the history of the program.
“What the last few years mean, the bar has been permanently raised,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue as a program. We want to win state championships, we want to be the standard, we want to be the place in the northern part of the state that when you think of soccer this is the first place that comes to mind. Quite honestly, this team and this season have been integral in that more than anything.
“With a season like no other, they’ve had to deal with all the start and stops – midseason, during sectionals and even during the state championship – we weren’t sure if we were going to get to play or not, you can’t take anything away from this group. They’ve done everything they’ve been asked to and more. Proud – I know I’ve said it a bunch of times – is the only word that comes to mind. It’s the best emotion I can express at this moment.”