No. 1 Eagles soar high again, capture 3rd D1 title in last 4 years behind Ward’s hat trick over No. 2 HAC; In defensive D2 Finals, No. 2 Houghton Academy falls, 2-0 to top-seeded Blue Devils
Photo gallery and story by CHRIS BROOKS, sports editor, wellsvillesports.com
PERRY — In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “dynasty” is used to describe “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable amount of time.”
In Section V, there’s been a select few of them that have come into full fruition over the years. To name some: the Elba girls basketball program under then-head coach Tom Redband, winning five straight Class D2 Championships before they saw their streak snapped to the hands of eventual champion Andover/Whitesville last winter.
On the pitch itself, the Wheatland-Chili girls soccer program under legendary head coach Gary Ward, who conducted multiple reigns atop Section V ranging across both Class C2 and Class D1 through the seasons, recording back-to-back Class D State Championships along the way. More locally, the Bolivar-Richburg baseball program — nine titles in the last 14 years under the guidance of head coach Dustin Allen.
In addition for the Wolverines: They also have a streak of four straight Section V titles from their wrestling program under the Taylor family regime.
With the way everything is trending, the Fillmore boys soccer program may just throw their name into the ring.
Since the dawn of time, Fillmore has become a town that lives and breathes soccer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. As time marches forward, the talent amongst the boys and girls soccer program’s pipelines that have navigated through the entire program itself, past and present, is non-stop.
No matter which way you look at it, Fillmore has become a premier town for premier teams, year after year.
Although the program has a new face conducting the orchestra on the pitch for the first time in 31 years, nothing has changed. In fact, the Eagles are in the midst of an unbelievable season for first-year head coach Jarrett Vosburg — a former player himself for, and later, one of the top assistant coaches under the legendary Jamie Mullen.
Friday night back up north in Perry, his No. 1 seeded squad was a single win away from regaining glory once again. In the midst of perfection across the board.
Their return ticket to the Class D1 Finals was punched just a few days earlier after the Eagles went to war on the battlefield and grinded out one of the grittiest wins of the year against No. 4 Keshequa in a rematch of their Finals meet-up back in 2020.
A game in which Vosburg said only makes his team better on so many different levels.
“Honestly, that game against Keshequa could have really gone either way and we gritted our way through it,” he said. “Those are the kinds of games that make you better human beings, not just better soccer players. Ultimately, that’s our goal as a program – to make good, young men that are going to be great fathers when they’re older, great leaders for our community. It’s something incredibly special.”
No. 2 Harley Allendale-Columbia was their lone obstacle occupying the lane between them and yet another climb to the top of the Class D1 mountain. All it would take was six minutes after the opening kick, and a stout effort on defense early in the first half.
Long story short: Mitch Ward was simply being Mitch Ward.
Although the Wolves were able to put the Eagles defense through the ringer early on with a ton of time and space deep in the offensive zone, it was nothing out of the ordinary that they couldn’t handle, as they turned in a stout performance and transformed the momentum into a vast amount of quickness on the attack led by Ward.
As a result, the Fillmore senior set the tone six minutes into the game with the first of his three goals, using the momentum from two different avenues the Eagles would travel — Wednesday’s gritty Semifinal win, and then their 4-0 shutout victory in the Finals to capture what would be their third Class D1 brick in the last four years.
The first for Vosburg in year one of a new era of soccer.
“I’m so incredibly proud of these boys. There’s not another group of young men out there that I would go to battle with, and they played their hearts out for this,” Vosburg said. “The first one might be special for me, but it really doesn’t matter who’s over here on the sidelines, whether it’s me or Jordan (Mullen), or Wit (Mike Witkowski), it’s really the same team. We’ve said since the beginning of the season, we have to become irrelevant as coaches, and I think we have. This is their team. We’re along for the ride, and we want to see how long this goes.”
The impact that the Eagles (19-0) would make against the Wolves can be felt almost immediately after the opening kick at center, beginning with the first of many chances that Ward would weave his way through the HAC defense for. The pressure would boil over just six minutes in as he scored the first of his tallies off a bad turnover deep in the offensive zone, making a break for the net. With patience, he would lob the ball straight over the Wolves keeper and into the lower right corner to give Fillmore the start they wanted.
But after the marker, the Wolves would quickly cover the pressure with the lid, and then flare up with pressure of their own. A vast majority of the first half time was spent deep in the Eagles defensive zone, creating multiple chances that, with the help of their defense, could not come into complete fruition, as the top seeds managed to clear the zone each time.
“They had a lot of guys in the center of the field, and for a while it seemed like we were starting their counter-attack by some easy giveaways,” said Vosburg. “I was proud of how we adjusted and started hitting balls over the top of them. They kind of gave that to us a little bit, and we let guys like Mitch and Henry (Sardina), and Layton (Sanasith), those faster guys go and run after the ball. It was great that we found a way to adjust.”
It would be the only prime chance the Wolves would get against Fillmore to try and regain traction on offense, but with the defense clearing the zone, it would only mean bigger and better things for the Eagles.
The top seeds would continue knocking at HAC’s door, with more chances being mounted against the Wolves before another goal would squeeze its way into the back of the net from Ward off another turnover in the offensive zone, speeding his way towards the opposing keeper who came out of net to challenge the loose ball.
Instead, Ward intercepted the chance, worked his way around and fired his ball straight into the wide open net with 6:11 left until the break, extending the Eagles lead to a pair officially, going into the half.
Quickness would continue observing as the best medicine that Fillmore would provide. Just 3:30 after the second half’s opening kick at center, they garnered a prime corner kick opportunity — one that was taken by Eben Schilke, and then finished off by Henry Sardina next to the far post, using his cranium to knock it home for a 3-0 lead.
If there was any doubt that remained on Fillmore navigating their way back to the top again, none remained with Ward’s hat trick-clinching goal with nearly 10 minutes left in play, scoring one final goal after a series of passes works its way towards his doorstep, firing the ball into the HAC net with ease to branch out the lead to four.
“They played with so much confidence and composure. They got the ball into the corner, over the top and got so many chances from it,” said Vosburg. “That’s what it’s really all about. Mitch is going to bring the same consistent, solid effort every single night, day in and day out, and there’s a reason why he’s the best player on every field. He’s touched a soccer ball every day for 365 days straight, and it shows. He’s put in the time to earn this for us, he and everyone else on this team deserves it.”
All that remained, was another celebration in the works, as Fillmore officially cemented another championship-winning season with back-to-back titles in Class D1 — three in the last four years, with the potential to add even more once again on Tuesday in the Class D State Qualifier.
The four goals scored by the Eagles attack stemmed off 18 total shots while the defense held the Wolves to just three back the other way. In goal, Luke Colombo helped put a bow on the team’s title with all three saves to pick up the shutout.
Vosburg says that the reason behind the program’s success altogether? — The endless support from everyone in their beloved community.
“This team, it’s about them but even more so, the program itself and the community,” the first-year coach said. “Fillmore puts so much into their athletics, their sports and we couldn’t do any of this without the parents’ support, the community itself all behind us. It’s an incredible thing that we have going on here in Fillmore, and we could not do any of the things that we’re capable of doing without them. That’s for sure.”
As for who the Eagles will face on Tuesday? That was determined beforehand, in the Class D2 Finals which featured a team that had not seen Section V’s grandest stage in quite some time. A very familiar team.
Their neighbors from right down the street — the Houghton Academy Panthers.
For the first time in 19 years, the chance to once again reclaim glory of their own would come after they found a way to take down what has been their kryptonite, No. 3 Northstar, in the Semifinal round to make their way to the final battle. It would see them pinned up against perhaps their toughest challenge yet: Top-seeded Mount Morris.
The Blue Devils are a squad designed to deliver blows from all different angles from the field, in a wide variety of ways. With that combination along with some incredible senior leadership and some hard, physical play mixed in between, you have yourself a winning formula destined for great success.
That would prove to be the case in the lead-off game in Perry, as the top-seeds were on top of it early on, applying all the pressure in the world against Houghton Academy while they navigated their way to the goal with a score in each half, the last cementing their Championship victory with close to 10 minutes remaining, as the Blue Devils worked their way back to the top of Class D2 at the end of the night in a defensive 2-0 triumph over the Panthers.
“You could tell that they were mostly oriented. The moment tonight possessed was not a moment too big for them,” said Panthers coach Jeff Prentice. “It was big for us, and we made some mistakes early on that we weren’t typically known to make, but at the same time, Mount Morris is a team that will force you to make mistakes. It’s a bit of both of that, as well as some nerves. They’re a different animal, they’re a complete team and they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. We aren’t deep enough to try and overcome what they applied.”
The pressure that the Blue Devils applied came into effect almost immediately after the opening kick at center, when a near-goal on their first shot at the Houghton Academy (12-6-1) cage was called back on a foul. The missed opportunity would serve as a big boost of energy that would ultimately begin to boil over near the 10 minute mark, when the Blue Devils found their way onto the board with their first from Ben Bacon, who capitalized on a loose ball directly in front, firing it home to the lower left corner of the cage to break the ice.
Despite the early goal to the top seeds, the Panthers would shake it off and race right alongside their opposition stride-for-stride for the remainder of the first half, garnering a fair amount of scoring chances deep in the offensive zone along the way. Through it all, a lot of bending on defense, but no major breaking for Houghton Academy on defense, as the 1-0 lead remained intact going into the break.
Prentice commended his defense’s efforts for holding Mount Morris after the early marker.
“We didn’t really go into a shell, even though they got both of the goals. We tried to make some moves on the field to try and go at them with some mental toughness,” he said. “I was proud of them that we were able to keep going. Our center-midfielders ran their butts off all game, and they worked so hard to keep us in it. The defense made some mistakes early, but we toughened up as the game went on. Give Mount Morris the credit, they were a bit tougher tonight.”
With the lead in hand, Mount Morris came back out in the first half and picked up where they left off with five corner kicks chances in the first 12 minutes of the new session. Amongst the chances, numerous close calls were avoided by the Panthers, as they cleared the zone on every one of the chances until the Blue Devils were able to finally put one away on their penultimate opportunity.
With 12:39 left on the clock, Payton Bownds recorded perhaps the biggest marker of the game off a brilliantly placed corner from the foot of Jack Lonsberry, hitting a body in front of the Houghton Academy goal before finding his foot directly in the middle. With it, he fired a missile past Marco Zanini and straight up to the upper echelon of the cage to branch out their lead to a pair, in the clutch.
With the two-goal lead in hand, the Blue Devils would tighten the bolts down on defense one final time, allowing the time to run out on the Panthers in the game, and in their season, as they went on to capture the Class D2 Championship brick behind a stellar 23-shot offensive effort.
Houghton Academy was held to just five shots on the Mount Morris goal, while Marco Zanini was busy on the other end putting a stop to 21 shots.
Although the defeat was not what the Panthers had hoped for, their long-awaited appearance in the Finals for the first time since 2003 served as the ultimate pinnacle for a remarkable season on the pitch, as they wrapped up shop with a record of 12-6-1 overall — a big positive that Prentice hopes that not only the team, but the school itself will build from after battling through what has been a bounty of adversity since the beginning of the pandemic.
A time where they could not field a team.
“I still look back on the season, there were some great, great moments. Where we started to where we are now, it’s still a very positive thing for us even though it stings,” he said. “You have to take a look at the big picture, our school is unique compared to others in Allegany County. The type of students we get, how they come to our school. COVID put a big hurt on us, and when you take that into effect along with some administrative changes that were made, there have been some difficult times.”
Prentice continued noting that “This here, it kind of gives off that unifying factor for not only the student body itself, but for everyone else at the school. It’s one of those things that brings everyone together, and hopefully it will get us excited to keep building from this, and welcome more people to our school. To me, that’s how I see it fit.”
As for the future?
“One of the young guys after the game said that if we get back here again, that we were going to win it,” Prentice said. “He was telling one of the seniors, and he said that they’d be back for it if we can do it. We’re still young, and even though we have seniors, we’re experience young. I feel like the season we had, it can become a great builder to lay off the nervous feeling about being in this game, and be more confident about it.”
The stage is now set for the Class D State Qualfier game, which will take place Tuesday night at a site and time to be determined between Class D2 Champion Mount Morris, and Class D1 Champion Fillmore. The winner will advance to represent Section V in the Far West Regional next weekend at Spencerport.
Vosburg says that his team will be ready for whatever challenge that Mount Morris will bring to the table.
“They’re a great team, and very well-coached,” he said. “Joe’s (Connolly) is a great guy, a great coach, and I’m confident that they are going to give us a great challenge on Tuesday. They will give us everything they have, a run for our money. We’ll enjoy this moment over the weekend and then get back to work on Monday, and do the best we can.”