POLAND – Poland’s boys soccer team entered Wednesday’s regular-season finale unbeaten and untested.
One thing changed as rival Hamilton pushed the Tornadoes throughout a physical 80 minutes in Poland’s 1-0 Center State Conference Division 4 victory. Sophomore star Dale Lepper tallied the lone goal of the game on a penalty kick with 28:22 remaining to extend Poland’s mark to 16-0 entering next week’s sectional play.
“We definitely can play a lot better and it can help us get ready for sectionals,” Lepper said. “We can count this as our loss to get us ready for what’s ahead and move on and go through sectionals.”
Poland controlled possession and had several opportunities to break the game open early, but shot after shot either missed its mark or was stopped by some dynamic stops by Hamilton keeper Ben Coddington, who finished with 12 saves.
After weathering Poland’s early flurry, Hamilton settled in and made the Tornadoes earn every opportunity. The Tornadoes did own a 21-4 edge in shots and had most of the real scoring chances, but the Emerald Knights (1-4-1, 5-6-1), proved they can hang with the top teams in Class D.
“We are a good team,” Hamilton head coach Brian Rose said. “Our record doesn’t show it, but we’ve showed we can play with anybody. They are ranked eighth in the state and it isn’t the first close game we’ve had against a state-ranked team … Clinton was a close game as well and they were ranked in the state.
“This definitely helps us confidence wise to see we can play with top-ranked teams. They are undefeated and they only got the one goal on us on a tough break … on a penalty kick. … Without that it’s zero-zero and we’re playing overtime. We know what we can do. My kids can get the job done.”
With Lepper controlling the game from the midfield and setting up his teammates, Poland had numerous chances. Kade Ozog, who leads the team with 16 goals, had three opportunities from deep inside the 18’ in the opening 13 minutes, but couldn’t cash in.
“A lot of those should’ve went in,” Lepper said. “But sometimes that happens. We’re hoping to get the No. 1 or 2 seed and we know we are better than most of the teams and hopefully we can play like we’re capable. If we play how we usually play we shouldn’t have a problem.”
Part of it was just missing shots they would normally finish. Some of the credit has to go to the physical defense from Hamilton’s Dan Jerome, who blocked several shots and didn’t allow a lot of breathing room to Poland’s talented strikers.
“Playing them it’s tough,” Jerome said. “They were very persistent and have a lot of energy and were always knocking at our door, so we have to keep on stopping them. … It’s constant pressure. We’ve always had a rivalry with them. It’s hard when we come out losing off of a penalty, but it is what it is.”
Despite Poland holding an 8-2 edge in shots and controlling the majority of the play in the opening 40 minutes, the teams entered the break scoreless. Hamilton did have a few chances in the first half as senior forward Erik Geier found some breathing room, but Poland’s defense led by Ethan Satterlee and Hunter Broadbent were solid in front of keeper Connor Broadbent.
Poland quickly applied the pressure early in the second half as Jarrett Papp had a golden opportunity that was saved by a perfectly-positioned Coddington.
Nearly 12 minutes into the second half, the constant pressure finally paid off for the Tornadoes, who were awarded a penalty kick as a clearing attempt by Hamilton’s defense resulted in a hand ball. Lepper made it count by drilling the penalty into the lower left corner for a 1-0 lead.
For all the eye-opening flash and offensive skill Lepper possesses, Poland head coach Greg Haver believes his star sophomore is a well-rounded performer.
“I don’t think he gets a lot of credit for cleaning up a lot of balls in the midfield,” Haver said. “Not everybody notices that. He makes a big difference in keeping teams from going the other way with it. Everyone notices all the other skills he has, but to me that is one of the other qualities that not many pick up on that is super important.”
Poland nearly missed on several opportunities to extend its lead, but couldn’t find its mark. Moments after Lepper’s goal, the Tornadoes looked to go up 2-0 as Garret Jones found Papp with a perfect cross. Papp’s header looked to be labeled for the left corner, but Coddington made a great diving stop to keep his team in the game.
The Tornadoes continued to mount consistent pressure as junior midfielder Tanner Allen and sophomore outside-mid Isaiah Zuchowski facilitated many of those chances with nice through balls to Ozog, Papp and others.
“It’s not what we wanted,” Zuchowski said of the 1-0 result. “We hoped to be up more by the end of the game. We pushed everything up the middle this game and we have to start using our outside middies and using the ball from the outside.”
After Poland controlled the majority of the game, the Emerald Knights mounted some nice offense in the final 10 minutes. Their best opportunity came as Geier sent a nice cross to a streaking JD Speer, who moved inside the 18’ but his shot floated over the crossbar.
“I think we can be a little more aggressive through the midfield and just finish our opportunities and we’re right in the game,” Geier said. “You want to win every time you take the field, but they’re a top team, I think like 16-0 and we put up a good performance. This is the type of game that will prepare us for sectionals and that’s what we’re going for.”
Hamilton also had a chance on a direct, and then on another nice cross from Geier inside the final minute, but the ball was cleared and the Tornadoes were able to drain the clock to remain unbeaten.
Junior midfielders Peter Klingaman and Spencer Thomas also had strong performances for the Emerald Knights, who finish off their regular season with home games Friday against Remsen and Saturday versus Owen D. Young.
The Tornadoes have recorded 12 shutouts and have outscored opponents 73-5 this season. Having a wake-up call right before the single-elimination postseason isn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to Haver’s Tornadoes before they focus on defending their sectional title.
“I thought it wasn’t our best effort,” Haver said. “It’s been a great season and teams usually have a hiccup, and it was kind of tonight for us. Part of it was that Hamilton played well. It’s a rivalry and they were up for it, so I give part of the credit to them, but it wasn’t our best. That’s going to happen during a season. It hadn’t happened yet and tonight it did. It shows our kids that if we play like this we could be done in a hurry.”
Poland 1, Hamilton 0
Hamilton (1-4-1, 5-6-1): Ben Coddington 12 saves.
Poland (8-0, 16-0): Dale Lepper 1-0. Connor Broadbent 1 saves.