By David Wagner
Undefeated in 24 games, the Western Albemarle Boys Varsity Soccer team finished off their 2014 season in dramatic fashion, knocking off the defending state champion Blacksburg High School Bruins at Liberty University in Lynchburg June 14. The match proved to be a nail biter as the Warriors beat the Bruins in sudden-death penalty kicks, 2-2 (7-6) to claim the 3A State Championship.
The game started off somewhat frenetically with neither team able to find a rhythm. Western struggled against Blacksburg’s tough, hard-nosed defense. But the Bruins never posed any serious threats against senior goalkeeper Al Luna and the Warrior defense. Ilo Zak continued his solid play at central defender with the help of fellow defenders Chris Ferguson and Will Alton. The first 40 minutes came to a close as one of the most exciting and up-tempo scoreless halves of soccer in recent memory.
Second-half action picked up where it left off, but the tide turned a little in the Warriors’ favor. The physical nature of the game intensified as well. Western had beaten Blacksburg 1-0 in the 3A West Regional finals a week earlier and that game looked to be fresh in the minds of both teams. Neither team was going to back down with a state title on the line.
Western gained momentum on offense when senior midfielder Michael Nafziger scored the game’s first goal. Nafziger found the ball at his feet off of a deflected pass just outside the 18-yard box, settled the ball, and nailed a beautiful right-footed shot at the far right post. The ball squirted through the hands of an outstretched Blacksburg goalie Will Linkenhoker for the score with 33:44 to play.
Things went from bad to worse for Blacksburg. About 8 minutes later, junior midfielder Shane Meacham got his second yellow card of the match, disqualifying him and leaving the Bruins a man down for the remainder of the game. That misfortune seemed to strengthen the Bruins’ resolve. With 12 state titles and plenty of big game experience, Blacksburg refocused and started to gain momentum and confidence.
The Bruins capitalized on a Warrior miscue and tied the game at 1-1. Western goalkeeper Luna came off his line for a punch save but wound up on the ground when he got tied up with a teammate. Luna was unable to get back on his feet in time and Blacksburg scored off the save deflection with a high floating header. The Bruins didn’t look as though they were playing a man short, as they continued to push forward aggressively. They weren’t content to play for overtime and a penalty kick shoot-out.
The Warriors quickened their pace also. The intensity of the game remained at a high level as the teams took turns trading punches before Blacksburg delivered what seemed to be the knockout blow. With just over seven minutes to play, a left-to-right crossing pass by the Bruins eluded Luna and Blacksburg’s Teig Lesko was there to bang it in the back of the net, giving the Bruins a 2-1 lead with 7:07 to play.
But the Warriors weren’t done. As the clock ticked down, the Warriors had a throw-in from the left sideline deep in Blacksburg’s end and once again Nafziger found the ball in his possession. He settled the ball with his right foot, got a second good touch on it, pushing it towards the center of the field, and then drilled another right-footed shot at the far post. The shot beat the Bruin keeper into the side netting and sent the game into overtime. Nafziger was lucky to even be in the game at that point. Three minutes earlier he had received a yellow card and had to leave the field. He waited on the sideline for a stop in play and a chance to re-enter the game. Head coach Paul Rittenhouse settled Nafziger down, instructing him to, “Go back in and do something productive.” Nafziger did just that, scoring maybe the biggest goal yet of his soccer career.
After three scoreless five-minute overtime periods, the game was still tied, but not without high drama. In the third overtime, senior forward Forrest White, the Warriors’ scoring leader and now the state record-holder for career points and goals in a season, had a chance at victory with a penalty kick. But his kick was off the mark and the game went on.
In the penalty kick shoot out, both teams scored on all five of their first round attempts. Sophomore Jake Paulson started off the scoring for the Warriors followed by senior Jamie Ingersoll, White, senior Chris Ferguson and senior Chase Stokes. For Blacksburg, Teig Lesko, Andrew Kim, Bradford Mills, Asa Britten and Kelby Zeiger all scored. Goalkeepers Luna and Linkenhoker gave great efforts, but weren’t able to guess right. All 10 shots were on goal, sending the match into sudden-death penalty kicks.
The Bruins got the first turn and Lesko scored. This put the pressure on Paulson. He moved in slowly and sent the ball toward the right post. Linkenhoker guessed right and got a hand on the ball, but Paulson’s shot had enough on it to get past the keeper to tie the score at 6-6.
Kim was next up for the Bruins. This time Luna’s hunch was right and he made the first save of the penalty kick rounds. Then it was up to Western’s Jamie Ingersoll. But it wasn’t meant to be. Ingersoll’s shot was high.
Next up for Blacksburg was Mills. Once again, Luna got a good read on Mills’ shot and made another huge save, giving Western another chance. Enter White. This was his second chance to win the game. The pressure was on the Virginia Tech-bound senior. He had been the Warriors’ most outstanding scorer all season. White approached the ball with a bit of a stutter step and then pounded a hard, low, left-footed shot inside the right post, beating Linkenhoker and giving Western Albemarle the win 2-2 (7-6).
Afterward, White kept a humble, sincere attitude. He said the personal records were “very cool,” but going undefeated and winning the State Championship was much more gratifying. The team accomplishment outweighed the personal success by far.
White is already in Blacksburg practicing and taking two classes. “It’s very demanding and exhausting, but good,” he said. “It’s a great experience, playing with very talented people from all over the world.” Tech’s roster includes a number of players from Germany, two from Trinidad & Tobago and one from Brazil. One of the players from Germany has played with Mario Gotze, who scored the World Cup-winning goal in overtime for Germany last month.
Nafziger left a mark of his on own on the Warrior program, not to mention the two goals he scored in the state title game. He was proud of the resilience and unity his team displayed throughout the year. “As a team we kept fighting to the end and had what it took,” he said. Nafziger credited his coaches Paul Rittenhouse and Milo Oakland for teaching them the focus and determination to keep playing their game even in the toughest situations. Nafziger will continue his soccer career this fall at Division 3 Swarthmore College.