Sometimes it's hard for Maple Grove coaches Kevin Beaton and Jerry Pardue to believe that the season that's been is, in fact, real.
"This whole year it's been one good thing after another," Pardue said. "I've had to pinch myself to make sure it's actually happening."
It's understandable that the pair would, at times, find reason to question their reality. The season they've enjoyed is certainly every coaches' fantasy - and fantasy, as many know, rarely comes to fruition.
Erik Olson leads the Maple Grove Red Dragons with 21 goals.
P-J photo by Rob Tucker
Among the highlights?
A near-perfect regular season (the Red Dragons went unbeaten in their first 12 contests and won 15 of 16 overall); gritty, lights-out play during the playoffs (in their four games against Section 6's top competition, they've outscored their opponents 13-2); and a sectional title for the first time since 2010.
Yes, it's been a dream season for the state's 10th-ranked squad, but it's one that could reach historic heights today at 5 p.m., when it squares off against Section 5 champion Williamson in the Far West Regional at Hamburg High School.
Maple Grove, you see, has never reached the New York State Public High School Athletic Association state final four. Actually, the number of teams from this area that have could be counted on one hand.
The group, Beaton says, is ready to make history.
"They're (composed)," he explained. "Each goal we've had from day one we've accomplished, so we feel good, and it just seems like the last quarter of the season and the playoffs we've really been clicking.
"Success really does breed more success, and I think the kids have grabbed hold of that. We're ready to keep going; we're just going to keep plugging away."
But while Maple Grove's aim is to keep the success going and reach new heights, Williamson's goal, since its hard-fought loss by penalty kicks a year ago in this very game to then-Section 6 champion Holland, is, simply put, redemption.
And it's clearly been a powerful motivator for the Marauders, who have gone 18-0-2 thus far and are ranked fourth in the state by the New York State Sportswriters Association. The winners of two-straight Section 5 Class C championships, they have now gone an incredible 33-0-3 over their last 36 matches.
"I've been following Section 5 soccer for a couple of years now and the Rochester teams are all very skilled," Pardue said of the challenge ahead. "They have players coming off the bench that could probably start for most teams around here, so they're very deep. Football is big up there, but soccer is really the key sport. There's no weak teams, and when a team like Williamson can come out of that area undefeated, you know they're battle tested."
Williamson, which won the Class C-1 title, topped C-2 champion Geneseo on Wednesday, 3-0, behind a quick goal 11 minutes in by the team's second-leading scorer, Rufus Hall (13 goals), and then preserved the shutout behind the strong goaltending of junior Mitchell Steurrys (six saves, seven total shutouts).
Pardue, who Beaton has praised for his ability to analyze opponents, about eight Red Dragons and a number of parents were on hand to watch the Marauders in action.
"They spread the ball around a lot, they have a solid defense, solid midfielders and big, strong forwards," Pardue explained, "(Steurrys) is tall and very strong in the box and we haven't seen a goalie around here with that kind of size and speed, so it's going to be tough."
That isn't to say, however, the group hasn't pinpointed some areas in which the Red Dragons, especially with their size up front (forward Nick Swanson is 6-foot-5), could find success.
"We've checked with a few other teams and they had said that (Williamson's) outside backers are not a strength, so we may be able to send passes deep into the corner and work outside in," Beaton said.
It's exactly that type of play that allowed Maple Grove's top scorer, Erik Olson (21 goals), to head home a cross from teammate Nick Hutchinson early in the second overtime period against I-Prep to capture the sectional crown.
Added Pardue, "We have quite a bit of size up front, so sending high balls into the box might be an option. But until the game starts it's hard to tell."
Whatever the plan becomes - it almost always changes during the ebb and flow of play - sticking to what has worked over the past two months above all will be the Red Dragons' biggest key to victory.
"Our motto all year has been to be the first to the ball and to outwork (opponents)," Pardue said. "If we play our game and work hard, good things happen.
"When you get to this point," he finished, "you're not going to face any easy teams. (Winning) is doable, but we're going to have to play our best game of the year."