VERONA — Jeremy McGrath and his Belleville Henderson boys soccer teammates continue to live on the edge.
And after winning a Section 3 championship on Tuesday, unprecedented in program history, the Panthers won’t have it any other way.
McGrath made 14 saves and fellow senior Kyle Moyer scored three goals, including the go-ahead tally on a clutch header in the second half, as the second-seeded Panthers edged top-seeded Cincinnatus, 4-3, to win the Section Class D final on a brisk night at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill High School.
Playing in its first Section 3 title game in program history, Belleville Henderson will bring its first boys soccer sectional championship back to the school. Belleville Henderson will play Section 4 champion South Kortright in the first round of state play at 11:15 a.m. Saturday at the Wright National Soccer Campus in Oneonta.
“I can’t even explain it to you, this is what we’ve been working for all year,” Moyer said. “So it finally happened.”
“It’s wild, man, I don’t even know,” McGrath said. “Like coming back twice, it’s like a storybook tale, basically. Being undefeated and coming back twice in sectional games against good competition. I have all the respect for Cincinnatus and (Manlius-Pebble Hill), they pushed us to what we are now.”
But the way the Panthers achieved the title amazed their head coach Shawn Maloney.
“It seems like we’ve been coming back a lot lately,” Maloney said. “And it seems like they want to do this to me on purpose. They have a confidence about the second half that I don’t understand; I don’t think I want to understand. They’re resilient, they work hard.”
The Panthers improved to 17-0 en route to their first trip to the state tournament.
“For three years, this is what our goal has been,” Moyer said. “And we have a ton of other kids here from past teams, that’s what our overall goal was — that’s what we’ve been aiming for — and we finally made it come true.”
Belleville Henderson trailed twice in the first half and at halftime, before rallying to defeat Cincinnatus (17-1).
“It was crazy,” Panthers senior defender Sheldon Spencer said. “It’s so breathtaking, I’m almost speechless. ... I don’t know what’s up with our team, but we always find a way to come back.”
The Panthers also trailed through 40 minutes in the semifinal round, before storming back to defeat Manlius-Pebble Hill, 2-1, last Wednesday.
On Tuesday sophomore Hayden Allen scored on a penalty kick nine minutes into the second half. Just one minute and 19 seconds later, Moyer followed with the first go-ahead goal by sending the ball into the left corner of the net with 28 minutes, 36 seconds left in regulation, with Peyton Bellinger assisting.
“I just tried to stay calm,” Allen said of converting on the penalty kick. “I’m just really proud of this team.”
McGrath, who made seven of his saves in the second half, then made a diving stop on a bid by Scott Schuyler.
“He’s amazing,” Maloney said of McGrath. “He pulls off saves that a lot of goalkeepers can’t. He is special, he’s a special keeper.”
Cincinnatus then tied the score on Cason Stafford’s goal with 22:49 left as he scored from the left side.
This set the stage for Moyer, who headed in a feed from senior Lucas Hess on a corner kick, lifting the ball past goalie Kooper Vosburg with 14:47 remaining.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to make it to me,” Moyer said. “I thought they were going to get it out, but I had good opportunity to flick it in.”
“I’m looking up at the good Lord on that one,” Maloney said. “I had (Moyer) back on defense man-marking and he wanted to go up for one and he found it. It was perfect timing.”
Moyer and McGrath are among 10 seniors on a Panthers team that also went undefeated in 2019, but were edged in the semifinal round by Frontier League rival Lyme on penalty kicks.
“We’ve been working for this for like awhile,” McGrath said. “This thing has been coming since I was in eighth grade. We’ve always been a family — that’s my family along the sideline and those are my brothers on the field. It’s finally time, we brought it home, finally. It feels amazing.”
Against Cincinnatus, Belleville Henderson bounced back after Stafford scored a goal in the game’s eighth minute.
“I knew my boys had my back,” McGrath said. “I was a little mad, but it happens. You get down, but we never stay down, we always come back and fight for the win. I knew my boys had it in them.”
The Panthers then drew even on Moyer’s first goal of the game, with Allen assisting, in the 12th minute.
The Lions reclaimed the lead on Jordan Larabee’s goal in the 21st minute.
That set the stage for Allen, who calmly converted on the penalty kick in the 49th minute.
Cincinnatus dominated the game statistically, outshooting Belleville Henderson, 24-8, and in corner kicks, 9-5.
“I can’t even explain it, it was a crazy game and they’re a very tough team,” Moyer said. “I think honestly it came down to we wanted it more. Everybody today in school and everything, the community came together and we responded to just made history.”
The Panthers managed to generate only six shots on goal, but were most efficient as four of them were goals.
Maloney began coaching Belleville Henderson’s varsity team six seasons ago, but his team continues to raise the bar and achieve notable accomplishments in program history.
“I’m so blessed to have a team that can say they don’t know what it feels like to lose,” Maloney said. “It’s hard to say that, not many coaches can say that, for the past three years we’ve gone undefeated. I just keep telling them, ‘you don’t want to lose now, you want to go as far as you can.’ And tonight was special.”