The Region I, Section 2 boys’ soccer title game went pretty much as expected Thursday night at Mylan Pharmaceutical Stadium.
University High and Buckhannon-Upshur fought in a tight defensive battle, but in the end, the Hawks scored early, dictated play through most of the game and iced the game late for a 2-0 victory to capture the sectional championship.
UHS (9-10-4) will travel to Wheeling Park at 5 p.m. Tuesday to face Wheeling Park in the Region I finals. The winner advances to the state tournament.
The Hawks began the match with a promising stretch of connecting touches through midfield, and the Hawks controlled possession and territory throughout the first half.
But, as has been an issue much of the season, the Hawks encountered trouble generating scoring touches against Buckhannon-Upshur’s solid, packed-in defense.
However, after earning a corner in the 13th minute, the Hawks executed the set piece to perfection, as junior Alex Maldonado served a lovely ball into the box, where senior defender Braden Bell — all 6-foot-6 of him — rose up and headed the ball down and past Bucs keeper Dalton Auvil for the opening tally.
Hoping to counter 11 minutes later, B-U forward Dirk Riley got loose and tried to slip a shot tucked close to the right post, but UHS keeper Connor Montgomery anticipated the shot and calmly secured the save.
Steady Hawks pressure led to a golden chance to double the advantage in the 43rd minute, and only a pair of point-blank stops from Auvil kept the score unchanged heading into the half.
Up 1-0, UHS coach Michael Smith reminded his team as the second half began that earlier in the season, the Hawks jumped out to an early lead, but backed off the intensity and allowed the Bucs (7-11) to tie it up.
It was clear his team received the message, because the Hawks commanded the next 25 minutes, winning the vast majority of the 50-50 balls, forcing numerous midfield turnovers, and generating plenty of promising shot attempts.
But no goals, so when Buckhannon forward Josh Gregory broke free on a quick transition in the 69th minute, Hawks’ fans had their heart rates jump, but Montgomery aggressively came off his line, cut down the angle, and stuffed the shot to maintain the lead.
UHS finally sealed the win in the second half on a centering feed from senior Pham Homklin all the way across the mouth of the goal to fellow senior Drew Greathouse, who put the game away.
After the match, Smith admitted this one felt a little too much like that earlier tilt against the Bucs.
“No, I certainly didn’t relax, not at all,” he smiled. “We’ve lost too many close games for me to relax as a coach. That’s why I was really happy that we matched their intensity throughout the first half, and really played hard and well in the second half. Our middle defenders, especially Braden and Ziggy Hirschfeld, were very steady all night, plus Connor in goal was solid, and I really think he’s the reason we’re heading to regionals.”
BY MARK SCHRAF