Knights Down Panthers in Defensive Contest

The varsity boys soccer starting 11 huddle before a match against FHHS on Oct. 11 (file photo)

The varsity boys soccer starting 11 huddle before a match against FHHS on Oct. 11 (file photo)

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, the varsity boys soccer team faced the FZN Panthers in O’Fallon in the first round of the Class 4 District 5 tournament. The Knights came into the contest with a record of 14 wins and five losses against the Panthers’ 12-11 record.

“I was a little nervous as usual,” senior goalkeeper Fletcher Dietrich said. “It’s one loss, and you’re out. But our team came in strong. We looked good at the beginning and shut them down. That’s what got us the win.”

FHN had defeated FZN 2-1 in the two teams’ final regular season game the previous Thursday at FHN, giving the Knights what they considered much-needed momentum playing on the opposing field.

“We knew what they were about,” senior midfielder Jesse George said. “We knew that they would kick and run. We knew that they had a fast guy up top, and if we didn’t play our best, we could slip up, and this could be a big upset.”

The home team began with control of the ball with what seemed to be a renewed sense of purpose following their loss to FHN the previous week. It took just over three and a half minutes for the Knights to move the ball into the attacking third. Once they made a play at the goal, though, it did not take long for the senior forward Connor Crain to put the ball in the net.

“We came out strong in the first 15 minutes of the game,” Crain said. “We wanted to get an early goal. I think it got our minds right, and, since we already had a goal, we just held on on defense for the win.”

Crain was assisted by fellow senior Chase Droege in a crafty through pass around FZN defender Alex Owens to give the Knights a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute of the contest.

Following the goal, play continued as usual between two teams who play back-to-back games against each other. There was plenty of physical play for both sides, culminating in just under 10 total free kicks for the half.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities, though, including a one-on-one scoring opportunity for Knights’ forward Husam Hamdan against Panthers’ keeper Blaine Pagano that was called back for an offsides penalty on Hamdan in the twenty-first minute of the first half.

In total, FHN outshot FZN 12 total shots to five and seven shots on goal to two, maintaining the visitors’ 1-0 advantage.

“We scored a goal,” head coach Larry Scheller said of his team’s play in the first half. “That’s what’s important in Districts when it’s single elimination: getting ahead. And we did well to get ourselves into a position to win with 40 minutes left in the game.”

Senior Connor Crain watches on from the sideline after suffering a leg injury in a match against St. Dominic on Sept. 22; he leads the Knights in scoring with nine goals on the season (Haleigh Schlogl)

Senior Connor Crain watches on from the sideline after suffering a leg injury in a match against St. Dominic on Sept. 22; he leads the Knights in scoring with nine goals on the season (Haleigh Schlogl)

The second half began with ferocious offensive play from the Knights, evident in their advantage of 10 total shots to two shots. Even more telling of FHN’s possession dominance early in the second half is the fact that the Panthers couldn’t establish the ball in the attacking third until the tenth minute, their first shot coming one minute later.

As FZN increased their offensive pressure throughout the half, a similar increase in physicality between the two teams was seen. Whether it was Torrion Robinson and Colby Harrison tangling their legs or Connor Crain and Matt Bennick exchanging shoves near the Panther goal, the teams seemed to get more anxious as more and more time elapsed without a score.

“Our defense was great,” Dietrich said. “They’re always on; they’re always good. That’s what wins us games. They help me out every game, and that’s how we keep moving forward.”

The Knights keeper may have a rose-tinted view of the defensive struggle between the Knights and Panthers because he had to make only two saves in all of the second half. Regardless, and to the dismay of the FHN coaching staff, the ball was almost exclusively in the FHN defensive third for the final three minutes of the game, including a head-up play made by Dietrich to save a goal and an impressive header by junior Ritchie Taylor to knock the ball over the top of the goal to preserve the FHN 1-0 lead and eventual victory.

“Luckily enough, we got one more goal than they did,” George said. “We survived, and it’s just up to the next game.”

That next game will come against the Jaguars of FZW at 6 p.m. on the same field as the first game of the Class 4 District 5 tournament. The Knights all agree that they need to keep their pressure, defensive and especially offensive, at its highest in order to remain competitive in the final match of the district tournament.

This intensity required by the Knights was shown no better than in Jesse George as he walked off the field. He was taking heaving breaths. He was walking gingerly as if the mere weight of his body would break them should he step too forcefully. His face was speckled in the small black rubber pellets that keep artificial turf soft and that nearly blended into the Knights’ midfielders hair and skin.

Through this, he said quietly, almost to himself but resonating true with the thoughts of all FHN fans in attendance:

“It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *