RULING THE EMPIRE STATE: Fillmore becomes 1st Allegany County State Champion since 2006, as goals from Zubikowski, Ward soar Eagles to top of New York behind 2-0 shutout of rival Chazy
By CHRIS BROOKS, sports editor, wellsvillesports.com
MIDDLETOWN — We all have that hidden spark deep within ourselves that motivates us to do great things. Whether it’s a hard-hitting piece of advice or quotation someone has verbalized, or striving for personal greatness through work ethic, or even surrounding yourself with a core group of people that ooze positivity.
Sometimes, it’s those little things that bring out the best in us. To become the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. A sensational feeling of immense gratitude.
Probably one of the most common ways to express that strong ambition for desire and passion, is setting goals — something that in the local sports scene, almost every team does before the season commences.
Every morning since the end of last fall, Fillmore senior Mitch Ward wakes up to the sound of the alarm clock. In the midst of his morning routine before school, he notices a picture that hangs in plain sight on the wall in his room. It was a photo of the boys soccer team after losing in the State Finals to Mount Academy, in Middletown.
It was something that he looks at every single day. One that has served as a constant reminder for the future that had lied ahead.
He wanted to go back there with his team. One. More. Time.
This time, to finish the unfinished.
Little by little this season, the Eagles kept chipping away. Game after game, goal after goal, shot after shot until all of their collective efforts got them to the point where they wanted to be — a four-hour trip off to the east, straight down on Interstate-86. A trip they would go on to make for a seventh time in program history.
Faller Field. Middletown. The stage of ultimate grandeur in the Empire State.
A destination where only a select few of New York’s elites would wage war to become the best of the very best. Fillmore knew that upon their arrival to the field on Saturday, when they faced perhaps an opponent of such fortitude, of such mental taxation, that they had ever faced before — Section XI’s Greenport.
Fortunately enough, it was also a game that head coach Jarrett Vosburg witnessed an overwhelming amount of grit — a characteristic that his Eagles pride themselves on. One that maybe perhaps, is most he’s ever seen before not only as a coach, but as a former Fillmore player himself.
Enough to maneuver themselves towards a 3-2 win over the Porters in overtime, to enter championship contention once again after one of the most emotional battles the Eagles have been a part of.
“That Semifinal win was one of the grittiest wins I’ve ever witnessed. As a player before, and now as a coach,” he recalled. “It was incredible to watch them keep themselves composed mentally after giving up that two-goal lead we held into the second half, because they finished on two incredibly quality chances of their five that they had, and they happened quick. To see how we could recover and come back, and force overtime and get that goal the way we did, it was a special thing. I almost broke down after the game because of how proud of the heart, the soul, the grit they all showed to get us to the Finals.”
The end was near. With win number 22 now in the wagon, the Eagles would face that final curtain again — the State Finals.
After traveling along each and every highway, taking each careful step along the byway, the Eagles would now plan and chart their course towards the final stepping stone. In the process, a reigniting of their historic quarrel with State archrival Chazy — victors of a State record-tying 17 straight shutouts, and holders of a season-long seat at the high table in Class D as a whole, for a second straight year.
This time, for everything.
Despite all of the advantageous narratives that Chazy has held in their favor, Section V’s soar of Eagles knew exactly what to expect. Given the history between both clubs, what was expected, was exactly what happened — another wire-to-wire battle from start to finish. Would you have wanted it any other way?
But through it all, when there was doubt during the weekend, Fillmore ate it up and spit it out.
They faced it all, and they stood tall, and did it their way.
The monumental victory over Greenport would carry over upon entering the State Championship clash on Sunday. Chazy had allowed just a single goal across their season, but the Eagles would go on and double the ante after a scoreless first half bout, as Brent Zubikowski and Mitch Ward — two of the team’s stalwarts on both ends of the field, would find the back of the net in the last 40 minutes, giving Fillmore a prosperous two-goal lead that was threatened, but never relieved.
From the final 15 minutes onward, the sky was the limit. For the Eagles, it was a place on Cloud 9 where they now sit, as they knocked off Chazy to win it all, bringing home a State Championship for Allegany County — the first in 16 years, since the Bolivar-Richburg Lady Wolverines softball program accomplished such a feat back in the Spring of 2006, as they rushed the field in jubilant celebration of their 2-0 shutout to cap off an extraordinary, immaculate and undefeated 23-0 campaign in Jarrett Vosburg’s first season as acting head coach.
“Chazy is a perennial powerhouse. They’ve been ranked No. 1 in the State the entire season, and they’ve only allowed one goal before today,” Vosburg reflected. “Yesterday, they tied the State record for most consecutive shutouts. All the storylines were going their way, but to be able to compete stride-for-stride with them, and even really play our incredible brand of soccer, it’s incredible. Our first half was our best performance of the season, and we saved it for our last game. This is so much bigger than us. There were about 200 people around the corner downtown just waiting on the wind, the cold, the snow, to welcome us back home. It’s the community, and if there’s one thing to take away from tonight, it’s them. This State title is for them, and I couldn’t be more proud of these boys to bring it home. It means the world.”
Fillmore’s stellar senior in Mitch Ward added on the victory himself, noting another resilient spurt of grit that allowed the team to come out on top one more time to make his dream of completing unfinished business with the school’s first State title, come true.
“It’s all about grit. Holding out until the end to unload those goals with some of our final chances. We’ve been down 1-0 at halftime, 0-0 countless times, and even when Greenport came back to tie the game with two goals in 30 seconds, nobody on the field gave up. The whole team knew that being at this place so many times, it was something that we knew we could do. After doing it, seeing the community come out, the fire trucks, the police cars, the hundreds of people out in the street, that’s what it was all about. Winning a few soccer games for everyone, it’s always the best feeling.”
Although the program had turned the page after 31 years inside the Jamie Mullen Era, the Eagles (23-0) have now written what will wind up being the greatest first chapter to a brand new chronicle of success. Ever.
All with the appearance of the sidelines going unchanged, despite Vosburg now stepping into his role as Fillmore’s new coach. The same four guides — Vosburg, Jordan Mullen, Mike Witkowski and Jamie Mullen all in one place, at one time to keep the Eagles stabilized. One prime example of consistency proving paramount.
Vosburg said that was his top goal entering year one.
“Honestly, it’s tough to put into words. I’ve gotten a lot of praise today, but the guys that really deserve it are Jamie Mullen, Jordan Mullen and Mike Witkowski,” the first-year coach said. “This reliable, consistent coaching staff. My top goal was to maintain this program’s stability and consistency, and bringing all three of those guys back meant the world to me. This is as much of a state title for them as it is for any part of me. Jamie and Mike are second and third fathers to me, and me and Jordan grew up playing this game together. To be able to coach with him is a dream come true. We’re all on Cloud 9, and I don’t know if we’ll ever have this kind of season again. But it’s something that you can’t ever be sure about.”
To complete their quest towards New York State greatness, the Eagles would have to surf the same wave alongside Section VII’s soar of Eagles across the first 40 minutes of play. Both teams would come up with numerous chances across time, but none dribbled across the white line and into the net, as a scoreless first half tie was settled upon going into the break.
Both teams would then continue to tighten down the pistons across their highly competitive battle. But in the process of it, some began to loosen. Just past 10 minutes into the final session, lightning struck.
It has been made known game in and game out that Brent Zubikowski holds one of the more powerful boots in Allegany County from the back line. He proved that in their Far West Regional battle against Ellicottville with a longball assist to Mitch Ward from past midfield, for the score. This time, he would take care of business himself, launching a 60-yard rocket straight on target to the Chazy net.
With the wind playing in their favor, it set up a fortuitous bounce for the ball to make its way over the head of the Chazy netminder and in to break the ice for Fillmore.
The lead was collected. All that was left now, was to lean on a spectacular defense that has been the team’s backbone. Despite a few Chazy chances that came into fruition in front of Luke Colombo in goal, the Fillmore senior would not let any go past him, including a diving save off a shot from Luke Moser, minutes after the first score.
Just when the momentum was slightly leaning towards Chazy’s direction, it evaporated drastically. A handball called inside their own box halted time, and set up perhaps a game-defining moment for the Eagles with 15 minutes left to play. Moments that Mitch Ward lives for.
When he was granted to take the free kick for the Eagles by Vosburg, he would go on to score perhaps the biggest goal of his season and maybe even, his career, as he perfectly placed the ball to the far left corner of the net with just enough speed past the Chazy keeper to branch out the lead by a pair — doubling what Class D’s top-ranked squad had allowed all season, entering the day.
“Brent Zubikowski deserves all the credit. People say that his goal was a fortunate one, but the pressure we put on them to make it happen from the first half to the beginning of the second, those bounces happen,” Vosburg said. “We were up against a stiff wind in the first half, and then I told them before the start of the second that it was going to get easier. It went right over top of the goalie’s head. And then Mitch, if the game is on the line, it’s him. He’s been Mr. Reliable all season, and he’s put in the hard work, and he has become such a talented individual. I was so happy to see him get that second one to put that safety net under us.”
Almost immediately after Ward branched the team’s lead to two, their safety net was threatened. On the very next possession for Chazy, they were awarded a penalty kick of their own off a Fillmore handball inside their own box. In a tide-turning moment of their own, Isaac Merrill elected to take the free shot, but could not convert it, as the Eagles lead remained intact.
A lead that Fillmore would carry all the way to the end, despite one final attempt from Chazy in the waning minutes to chip away, as the bench was sent into complete pandemonium after they became Class D State Champions for the first time in school history after seven trips to the grandest stage of them all.
“Chazy missed a PK right after Mitch hit his and that could have been a decider. It was a weird handball in the box, and fortunately they didn’t capitalize on it,” said Vosburg. “But to have that two-goal lead in that moment in time, was absolutely huge. It starts with our defense, Luke made five incredible saves to keep our season alive this weekend, and if he doesn’t do that, we don’t come out with these wins. Damon Wood yesterday, played some incredible minutes against Greenport off the bench, being the workhorse that he is. Henry Sardina picked up right where he left off from Spencerport. Our midfielders, Zach (Sisson), Eben (Schilke), Jack (Cool), they took it to another level, distributing incredibly well. It’s hard to name names, but it’s a great year, an incredible season. Everyone contributed to this.”
The two goals that Fillmore was able to accumulate came off eight shots against Chazy, while their opposition recorded six back the other way — all of which were set aside tremendously by Colombo to record the final shutout of his career between the posts, his 17th of the season to help put a bow on an immaculate conclusion to a historic campaign that will go down as the most successful in school history.
One that may stand the test of time going forward.
Ward, who will finish his Fillmore career as Section V’s leader across the board with 47 goals and 113 points total this season, said it was the perfect finish everyone had hoped for, despite numerous records he helped the program break across time, and the scores being recorded each and every step along the path towards long-awaited glory.
“What more could you ask for?” he said. “It’s everything I’ve wanted and more for not only myself, but for the team. There’s obviously a lot of distractions with the records being broken and the goals, but really it’s all about the brothers on this team. I’ve spent the last five years of my career with them, and growing up with Jordan, Wit, Coach Mullen and Vosburg. That’s what really matters. The relationships I’ve been able to build through this game have been unbelievable and it’s something I will never forget.”
Ward will join his defensive stalwarts, Colombo and Zubikowski, along with nine more seniors when Fillmore prepares for Graduation later this school year, in June. In all, 12 will depart as State Champions, as the Eagles say their heartfelt goodbyes to three of their leaders along with Damon Wood, Henry Decker, Aiden Wagner, Lucas Hersee, Ernie Lipscomb, Joe Derck, Brian Ashton, Ben Beardsley and Ray Muzaid-Omar.
The majority of the group was Vosburg’s intro upon entering the coaching circuit for Fillmore six years ago, becoming the first team he would guide when he began on the Modified level. Looking back, the first-year coach says their efforts over the years have been unparalleled, but the future ahead remains as brighter than ever with new faces prepared to step in and fill the voids his seniors will now vacate.
Authoring and accomplishing a story-book ending one could ever imagine penning.
“This group is the first group I’ve ever had on Modified, and they were the ones that really broke me into coaching six years ago,” Vosburg said. “It’s hard to quantify their contributions that they have made over the years for this program. Mitch, Brent obviously, Luke, Damon, you can go all the way down the line. They have all been nothing but incredible teammates, incredible leaders and we are really going to miss them next year. We’re definitely going to miss that presence they have brought, but we have guys waiting in the wings to take that next step forward. It’s pretty special to have the opportunity to send them out like this. We’re going to celebrate this tonight as a team, as a community, as a school. What they all have done as a collective, has been unmatched.”