ONEONTA — Trailing at halftime has been a familiar predicament for Belleville Henderson’s boys soccer team throughout this postseason and even at times during the regular season.
With the Panthers behind and competing in the state tournament for the first time in school history in soccer, coach Shawn Maloney attempted to fire up his players for the second half Saturday against Section 4 champion South Kortright.
“I think they may have gotten a little intimidated with their size, I’m not going to lie, they are big boys,” Maloney said of South Kortright. “But I told them it’s David versus Goliath, we’re smaller, but we can get around them and we can do it — and we almost did.”
But the one-goal deficit proved to be too much to overcome as the Rams gutted out a 1-0 triumph over the Section 3 champion Panthers in a physical state Class D quarterfinal at the Wright National Soccer Campus.
“It’s disappointing, we just fought so hard,” Belleville Henderson senior Kyle Moyer said.
Belleville Henderson, which rallied to prevail in its previous two playoff games, finished its season at 17-1.
“It’s very difficult,” Belleville Henderson goalie Jeremy McGrath said. “And it’s like the same thing as last (game), I’m at a loss for words, I just can’t explain it. It doesn’t feel real.”
The Panthers came back to win a Section 3 Class D semifinal against Manlius-Pebble Hill and also trailed at halftime in the final, but responded to knock off top-seeded Cincinnatus, 4-3, on Tuesday to secure the sectional crown, an unprecedented feat in soccer at the school.
“I tried telling the boys that from here on out its going to be a dogfight,” Maloney said. “Everyone’s here for a reason and it’s going to keep getting tougher — and it did.”
South Kortright (16-2-1) controlled much of the first half and generated the only goal it would need on Eoin Byrne’s unassisted goal in the 28th minute.
“We knew and expected coming in that it was going to be tough,” South Kortright coach Bob Van Valkenburgh said. “No. 23 (Brayden Richmond) and 15 (Moyer) are good players and their goalie’s big and it ended up being a physical game, both ways.”
Byrne collected in a loose ball in the middle and drove the ball into the right corner of the net.
“We were fortunate to get a nice shot, it took a good shot to win it,” Van Valkenburgh said.
Belleville Henderson generated more scoring opportunities in the second half, but couldn’t generate any sustained pressure.
“We just didn’t control the ball well and they had possession for most of the game,” Moyer said. “Honestly, we just struggled to keep possession to get the ball up.
“Our defense played well, everyone played well, it just wasn’t our day.”
Perhaps the Panthers’ best chance came when senior defender Sheldon Spencer sent a direct kick towards the net and goalkeeper Adam Champlin made a save at the right goal post with 14 minutes and 20 seconds remaining in regulation.
“We just dug a hole too deep and this time it caught up to us,” McGrath said. “A 1-0 game and sometimes that’s all it takes, man, just one goal. It hurts.”
“We had a couple opportunities, we just couldn’t put them away,” Maloney said.
The physical play continued well into the second half with the Rams again setting the pace.
Moyer was laid out by an opposing player, as South Kortright’s Darren Dengler was assessed a yellow card with 29:22 left in the game.
Champlin made four saves to record the shutout for South Kortright.
“I don’t know if after they beat Cincinnatus that they were content,” Maloney said. “But I would absolutely love to put our team up against them again. I had kids that didn’t feel well, that were hurt and injured. I think it would have been a different story.”
McGrath finished with six saves for Belleville Henderson, including five in the first half.
Moyer and McGrath are among 10 seniors on Belleville Henderson’s roster who came up through the ranks to make history this season for the program.
“I love these boys and I’m sad it’s over,” Moyer said. “But we had a heck of year, you can’t downgrade how well of a year we had.”
“This team really has heart,” said McGrath, who allowed just 11 goals in 18 games this season. “This senior group made history; this whole team made history, being able to play with these guys is just tremendous.”
South Kortright advances to the state semifinals for the first time since 2017, to be held next Saturday in Middletown.
“Both teams played so hard, it’s unfortunate somebody had to come out on the wrong side,” Van Valkenburgh added. “Both teams just laid it out there.”
Maloney added: “I told them it’s a life lesson,” he said. “Soccer is a stepping stone and they need to soak in this experience and put it towards their life goals. And then work 100 percent in whatever you do. They are sectional champions and they proved they could do it.”