BUFFALO - Less than two minutes into the opening 15-minute, sudden-death overtime period, Tonawanda's Nate Holler maneuvered through the Southwestern defense and carried the ball across the outer limit of the 18-yard box. As he did so, the sophomore - and the sixth-seeded Warriors' leading scorer - chipped the ball over a sprawled out Eric Priester, who had rushed out to cut the angle. The crowd, each half of which had been cheering either for or against Holler during the play, together went quiet as the ball inched nearer and nearer the goal line.
But suddenly, at the very last moment, Southwestern's Alex Bower sprinted over and booted the ball from danger.
That moment was the highest of highs for the second-seeded Trojans and their fans on hand. Unfortunately, what immediately followed was the lowest of lows.
Southwestern’s Tanner Hoose, left, and Tonawanda’s Jon Baumler collide after Hoose headed the ball in Thursday’s Section 6 Class B-2 boys soccer semifinal game. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J photo by Rob Tucker
Southwestern, in its relief at the recent crisis averted, was too slow - milliseconds at most - in getting back and refocused on defense, and when Holler heaved the ball from the right sideline into the area, a teammate quickly returned it to him, allowing for a second crossing pass that sailed right to the foot of Phil Guiga, who then redirected the ball into the net for the 1-0, Section 6 Class B-2 semifinal victory at All-High Stadium.
"(Holler) threw (the ball) in, ended up getting it back and then crossed it," Southwestern coach Mark Sleggs said. "I think (the previous near goal) kind of shocked us a little bit and we just couldn't regroup."
As Sleggs' group did its best to hold back the emotion that inevitably comes with a playoff loss, he forcefully reminded them of all their accomplishments - which included their play in this most recent contest, the season finale.
"I couldn't be prouder of how well our guys played," he said. "To be able to come up here and to be able to compete. I was really excited. I'm happy; the guys played their hearts out.
"When you get to this level you're going to be playing the best," he continued. "That's what we want, we want opportunities to play against great teams and we were close. We just didn't have enough bullets in the gun tonight."
While the Trojans' offense was slow to get going - much of that, Sleggs noted, was due to the solid play of their opponents - it was the defense that kept the group in striking distance.
Along with Priester, who was patrolling the nets, Bower, Justin Loverme, Tyler Bell and Blake Peterson, among others, held the Warriors in check by limiting them to just six shots on goal over the course of the game.
"I thought Eric Priester was a rock for us back there," Sleggs said, "and our defense has been phenomenal all year. They kept us in the game."
Kept them in the game long enough, in fact, to allow for a pair of solid scoring opportunities late in the second half.
The first came in the 68th minute when Ross Beresford found space inside the area and delivered a left-footed shot that was just barely tipped wide by a Tonawanda defender.
Then, in the final 30 seconds of regulation, Tanner Hoose raced up the middle of the field through two defenders to get a hold of a Beresford pass just as the Tonawanda goaltender came out of the net to snatch the ball. Hoose nevertheless managed to get a quick shot off before the goalie arrived, but it sailed high and outside of the goal.
"We had a chance," Sleggs' said. "I thought we had that one right at the end. It just didn't come off right, though."
Instead, it was Guiga's score that brought to a sudden close the most successful season the Trojans have enjoyed in at least a decade; a season that saw the squad pick up 14 wins, a league title and a much sought-after home playoff game.
"I'm just so proud of the guys and the season they had," Sleggs said. "I mean, my gosh. It was great."