Hamilton powers past Devils in state tourney

By Julia Green
It was as if a different team had stepped off the bus on Saturday, when the Margaretville Blue Devils boys’ soccer team traveled to Chittenango to face defending champion Hamilton in the quarterfinal round of the Class D, Section IV New York State soccer tournament.
“We knew they were going to be good,” said MCS Head Coach Jeremey Marks about their opponents. “They’re the defending state champs, they had a bunch of kids back from that team, and some common opponents had played them tough, so we knew going in that they were going to be good, and we expected a tough game.”
And a tough game was what they got. Playing for the first time all season on an artificial surface, it took the Blue Devils roughly a quarter of the game to find their momentum.
“To be honest, we didn’t look like our normal selves in the first 20 minutes,” Marks said. “We looked sluggish, hesitant, we were passive. Part of that maybe was that we weren’t ready for the moment, but a lot of it had to do with how Hamilton came out and how aggressive they were, and I think our guys kind of looked at them like, ‘Wow, these guys are good’ – a little bit deer-in-headlights. I don’t think we quite grasped playing our game early on, and we let them dictate a lot of the tempo of the game.”
Hamilton controlled much of the game and set the pace by winning the majority of the 50-50 balls and dominating play in the center of the field, where a lack of pressure allowed their center midfielders to settle the ball and distribute to their forwards.
“I think the game’s won and lost a lot in the midfield, where the ball is and where you need to control it,” Marks said. “[Hamilton’s] Drew Thompson, Daniel Meeks and Daniel Kraynak, they’re tough, they were big and fast, and we weren’t aggressive enough. But I don’t think it was just the midfield. We didn’t get enough numbers behind the ball, but we didn’t generate enough opportunities either.”
Hamilton’s momentum paid off when they got on the board just over 20 minutes in. Meeks struck the ball with the outside of his left foot from the left-hand side and it bent in to the upper corner of the far post to give Hamilton a 1-0 lead.
“I wasn’t overly concerned with the one-goal deficit,” said Marks, whose team has played from down during the season and has also had halftime deficits. “Obviously, it would have been nice to go into halftime up one or tied, especially since we weren’t playing our best soccer at that moment. We needed to go into halftime, make adjustments and come out with a better idea of how to attack them and how to settle down and play our game, because clearly in the first half, because we weren’t winning a lot of balls, we weren’t possessing so we couldn’t attack and generate many scoring opportunities.”
The Blue Devils seemed to find their spark just before halftime, however, as the defense appeared to settle down and the team as a whole stepped up its intensity. Marks said he was pleased, however, with his team’s effort during the last 10 minutes of the first half.
“In a game like that, you have to tackle harder, go in harder, mark better,” he said. “I don’t think we quite did enough of those little things to win possession to start our attack. I thought the last 10 minutes of the first half was better, thought we were a little more aggressive, which going into half I thought we could build on. We did get some [offensive] opportunities, because we were more aggressive and defended harder and tougher.”
The Blue Devils appeared to come out with a renewed sense of vigor in the opening minutes of the second half, and within five minutes senior Greg Lehn had what was perhaps one of the nicest shots of the day by either team, but Hamilton’s goalkeeper made a diving save to preserve their 1-0 lead.
That momentum was short-lived, however, as Hamilton struck again seven minutes into the half, when a ball crossed to the far post was finished to make it 2-0.
“I think the first 10 minutes after that, our guys kind of lost a little focus and for the first time they thought, ‘Uh-oh, this could be it,’” Marks said. “But about the 20-minute mark, to our guys’ credit, I thought we started to gain a little momentum. We made some nice runs forward, started to overlap, played to feet more. But unfortunately, being down two goals to a team like Hamilton is a tough deficit to overcome. But we didn’t quit. I was proud of that.”
Margaretville’s most dangerous opportunities came thanks to overlapping runs by Lehn, who carried the ball up the left flank a number of times and crossed it in, but the Blue Devils were unable to capitalize, despite the swing in momentum that Margaretville’s mounting offensive opportunities created. The speed on which Margaretville have relied all season was all but matched man for man on Saturday, including by the Hamilton defense, and the Blue Devils’ forward line was unable to break free from pressure.
Marks said that he doesn’t feel that playing on the artificial surface was a factor in Saturday’s game, despite it being the first game all season that the Blue Devils have played on turf.
“Our guys have played enough soccer and the ball’s the same, the goal’s the same… I don’t think that had an effect,” he said. “I can’t really put my finger on exactly what the effect was. You can talk about turf, you can talk about the three-plus-hour bus ride, but we don’t have any excuses. They outplayed us. They were the better team that day.”
“I think we held our own a lot of the game, but I think certain stretches we weren’t aggressive enough or we weren’t playing with the intensity we needed to play a game of that magnitude at that level,” he added. “I think there were a lot of times we were back on our heels, but there were a lot of times we came back swinging, too. Had we played the first 60 minutes like we played the last 20, it would have been a lot better for us. I don’t know if it would have changed the outcome of the game, but the aggressiveness and the attacking we had at that point would have served us well throughout the game.”
The Blue Devils will lose seven seniors from this year’s roster to graduation: goalkeeper Brian Faulkner, defender Jacob Johnson, midfielder Greg Lehn, forward Javier Martinez, forward/midfielder Sam Mendoza, midfielder Marcus Moore and sweeper Mitch VanKeuren.
“They were a big force all year,” Marks said. “They were the heart and soul of the team. We wouldn’t have been in that position without them and all the work they’ve done for the program and the team. But I’m excited about the kids coming back. I think we’ve got a great core returning that have been through this experience, and that can only be a positive for us. And we have a very strong modified team. We’ll be back.”
The Margaretville Blue Devils finish the 2009 season with a 17-1-1 record and in possession of their first Section IV title since 2002.
“Like I said, I’m proud of this team,” Marks said. “I’m proud of the year we had, and we’re not going to let this game take away from the season we had. We had a great year: 17-1-1, the first sectional champs since 2002, crossover champs, league champs, Nelson Tournament champs… these kids have a lot to be proud of.”