MORGANTOWN – Clinging to a 2-1 halftime lead, University High School boys’ soccer coach Michael Smith was left wondering exactly where his team’s collective heads were on Tuesday night.
“Tonight, I figured out that we needed to remove our head from a certain area,” Smith said of his team. “I was not nice at halftime, and they responded. I told them at the end that I was proud of the way they responded. It’s a shame it took us 40 minutes to wake up.”
The Hawks (11-8-1) put together a solid second half on the way to an 8-2 victory over visiting Preston in the Class AAA sectional semifinals. University is now 7-1-1 in its last nine games after a 4-7 start to the season.
“Our schedule was really tough to start the season,” senior captain Daniel Kaddar said. “We started on a three-hour trip to Musselman, and it took us a little while to get comfortable and playing games and we lost a lot of starters from last year. We’ve gotten it together now.”
University certainly got it together on Tuesday. The Hawks scored first with 34:41 left in the first half when Nate Lindsey scored off a corner kick. However, the Knights proved pesky as they tied the score, 1-1, with 9:33 left in the half when Cordell Ayers collected a loose ball at midfield and broke away from the UHS defense and then finished with a goal to the lower right corner.
“If we had a couple more of those, it would have definitely been a different game,” Preston head coach Josh Russell said. “If we had not given up that second goal right towards the end of the first half, I think it would have been a different game.”
UHS did indeed grab a little momentum with 3:12 left in the first half when Davion Huckaby put home a goal after it rebounded off the PHS goalkeeper.
After Smith’s halftime adjustments, the Hawks poured it on in the second half. Colin Carey and Brady Grubb each scored one goal while Alex Maldonado added two while Brayan Hernandez weaved through traffic for two more scores.
“We tinkered with our formation a little bit,” Smith said of the success his team has had in the last nine games. “I think we found some things out about ourselves, and we’ve done a lot of film study. I think we have come to a point where we are where we need to be.”
Preston added another goal on a breakaway when Jacob Williams got loose past the UHS defense and scored past the drawn-out UHS keeper.
Russell said he was pleased with the progress his team has made through the season. The Knights (4-13-3) lose just six seniors from this roster and now have had four years under Russell’s tutelage.
“That record doesn’t indicate just how strong of a team we are,” Russell said. “We have played some of the best teams in the state including UHS.”
Smith said he was impressed with the Preston team this season and the Knights did manage to score two goals in a game against UHS for the first time since 2015 which is also the last time that Preston beat UHS. The Hawks have now won 15 straight games against the Knights.
“That’s one thing I told my team at half is that right now Preston wants to win,” Smith said. “They had everything going on their side and they were beating us to every ball. This is a different Preston than we are used to seeing.”
Garrett Haymond had nine saves in goal for Preston while UHS keeper Connor Montgomery came away with two saves.
The Hawks now advance to Thursday’s sectional final when they will host the winner of the Bridgeport versus Buckhannon-Upshur contest. The game will begin at 5:45 p.m.
By ERIC HERTER