NEW HARTFORD — In order to clinch the Tri Valley League title, the New Hartford Spartans needed to win their 44th consecutive league game.
Following a sluggish start against the Rome Free Academy Black Knights, the Spartans dominated the final 2 1/2 quarters to pull away for an 11-6 victory on a blustery Wednesday evening at Don Edick Field.
Aadam Mirza had three goals and two assists, while freshman Kieran Ronan had three goals for the Spartans, who turned a 5-3 deficit midway through the second quarter into a 9-5 lead after the third.
Shane Calhoun had a pair of goals, Logan Kraft had a goal and an assist and goalkeeper Gabe Cull made 11 saves for New Hartford (5-0, 6-5). Noah Hammon had two goals and an assist and Santos Cruz made 10 big saves to keep the Black Knights in the game.
“We start a lot of freshmen and sophomores,” New Hartford head coach Dan Pope said. “Today I think was the most consistent and positive effort we’ve had in staying focused for the whole game.”
It wasn’t all easy for the Spartans as the Black Knights came out strong as Hammon bulled his way through the middle and beat Cull to put RFA up 1-0 just 27 seconds into the game.
The Spartans responded as goals by Anthony Campola and Mirza gave the home team the lead with 6:55 remaining in the first quarter, before the Black Knights were able to knot things on a goal by Jared Hussey with 2:05 left.
With Seth Hammon winning faceoffs, the Black Knights kept the pressure on early in the second. A gritty goal by Justin Hoke, who kept control after falling right in front of the crease and was able to sneak one by Cull to give his team a 3-2 lead 25 seconds into the second.
Hammon’s second goal doubled the advantage 5:03 into the quarter before a goal by Mirza pulled the Spartans to within 4-3 with 5:31 left before the break. Just over a minute later, the Black Knights responded as Keyshawn Clark ripped one into the net from 20 yards out to regain a two-goal advantage with 4:12 to go in the second.
That’s where the game changes as New Hartford dominated the rest of the game, outscoring RFA 8-1.
“I think it started at the faceoffs,” Pope said of his faceoff specialist Nick Butler. “It started with Nick and our wing guys. When Nick did get beat he used his speed advantage to get it back. He came up with all the ground balls on the wing line and everything else … we had to be 80 percent or so in the second half.
“I think it started there and we also started to hit the goal more often. In the first half we had shot after shot and weren’t hitting the goal. At half we told them to relax and hit the cage and a lot of them will go in.”
With New Hartford winning the vast majority of 50-50 balls, RFA head coach Guy Calandra wasn’t pleased.
“It was mental errors and we had no mental toughness,” Calandra said. “When you lose 50-50 balls it’s a mental game. You have to get down on the ball and take either a push or get the ball. When you don’t, it’s a lack of mental toughness, and we didn’t have any today.”
Inconsistency has plagued the Black Knights all season, and it was the case Wednesday as RFA looked very strong early before fading.
“We moved the ball and competed at the faceoff X,” Calandra said of the quick start. “I’m looking for this team to play to the level of their talent, because we haven’t done that at all this year.”
New Hartford’s turnaround started as Kraft found Mirza at the side of the circle and the senior put it away to make it 5-4 with 3:31 remaining in the half. The Spartans would tie it 21 seconds later on a beautiful goal as Mirza made a long pass from behind the goal to Kraft. The junior took the feed and moved to the middle. With a defender draped all over him flipped a behind-back-shot past Cruz that knotted the game.
“Once we get going and start getting a feel for each other we have great chemistry because we’ve all played together for a long time,” Mirza said.
The Spartans weren’t done as Ronan rocketed home a shot into the top-left corner with a minute left that gave the home squad a 6-5 advantage heading into the break.
With the Spartans finding some more accuracy and Butler dominating faceoffs, the Spartans were able to gain and keep the momentum throughout the final 28 minutes.
“They started slowing down as the game progressed and I got some and started some fast breaks,” Butler said. “When I did get beat, I slowed him down so my teammates could come in and get some checks in so I could pick up the ground balls. It feels good not to let our fellow teammates down and to keep the streak alive.”
The quick three-goal spurt seemed to inspire the Spartans and deflate the Black Knights. The Spartans defense, led by Liam Ronan and Michael Hansen, were strong in front of Cull, who also made several key saves to help his team keep the momentum.
“I think a lot of it was our goalie,” Mirza said. “Gabe stepped up and made a lot of big saves and it gave us energy to come back and get the win.”
For RFA, Cruz kept the Spartans from increasing their advantage over the first five-plus minutes of the third quarter. However, the dam finally broke as Will Hilton scored off nice passes by Kraft and Mirza to expand the lead to 7-5 with 6:10 left.
Ronan then scored two goals on long-range bullets that pushed New Hartford’s advantage to 9-5 after three quarters.
“I think shooting is my strong suit,” Ronan said. “The past few years, I’ve been working at my shot a lot. I got some good feeds and I felt comfortable.”
Shane Calhoun scored 39 seconds into the fourth to make it seven straight goals for the Spartans. The Black Knights didn’t give up hope as Griffin Eychner scooped one in off the ground with just over eight minutes remaining, but Calhoun added his second of the quarter to close out the scoring.
New Hartford hosts Holland Patent Thursday before taking on Whitesboro Tuesday in the “Sparrior Cup.” RFA travels to play Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Thursday.
New Hartford 11, RFA 6
RFA 2 3 0 1 – 6
New Hartford 2 4 3 2 – 11
RFA (3-3, 4-7): Noah Hammon 2-1, Caleb Frey 0-1, Jared Hussey 1-0, Griffin Eychner 1-0, Justin Hoke 1-0, Keyshawn Clark 1-0. Santos Cruz 10 saves.
New Hartford (5-0, 6-5): Anthony Campola 1-0, Aadam Mirza 3-2, Logan Kraft 1-1, Kieran Ronan 3-0, Matt Radley 0-1, Will Hilton 1-0, Shane Calhoun 2-0. Gabe Cull 11 saves.
Nick Sardina is a writer for midyorksportsreport.com. Follow Nick onTwitter @nsardinamysr or on Facebook. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org