Coming into its contest with state powerhouse Mansfield Christian, the Hiland boys soccer team was trying to rebound from a seriously subpar effort that saw them tie Tusky Valley 0-0.
To say that the Hawks had a lot to prove to themselves was a massive understatement. If it was a statement that was to be made, the Hawks did so, hammering out a 1-0 win that few expected.
“As much as anything, we needed to start playing with a little more heart and a little more energy,” Hiland coach Scott Bodiker said. “Today we played really hard, and we played really smart. Even when they were dominating, we played organized with a lot of heart, and both of our keepers played tremendous games.”
Any memories of the Hawks’ less-than-impressive performance at Tusky Valley were washed away in a first half that saw Hiland giving an A-plus effort that saw both teams playing hard, and both teams generated some decent shots on goal. While the Flames fired off a handful of good shots on goal, Hiland keeper Sam Raber was up to the task, firmly gaining a handle on the shots by displaying great hands.
The Hawks also got off a couple of nice shots including a direct kick from Kyle Mast that ricocheted off the right corner of the goal.
Both teams were held scoreless through the first 40 minutes of play, but Hiland had gained a huge amount of confidence that carried over into the second half.
Just over 15 minutes into the half, Chris Miller squirted through a couple of defenders and drilled a shot that the Flames’ keeper Gavin Kiliany deflected back out, where Declan Howell pounced on it and hammered it home for the game’s first and only goal.
“It felt great. I’ve never been so excited about a goal, especially because they are such a great team,” Howell said. “Coach told us at halftime we needed to follow shots and stay a little wider, so I am glad I did.”
Now with the lead, Hiland’s defense had to prepare for what was sure to be an intensified effort by the Flames to produce the equalizer. What they got was an absolute onslaught on Hiland’s second-half keeper Derek Burke.
“We worked really hard this past week on keeping our defensive shape, and our D really stepped up in a big way,” Howell said. “Every single guy played fantastic.”
However, time and again the Hawks’ defense teamed up to keep Mansfield Christian from scoring. Then with less than 15 minutes to play, Hiland faced its toughest challenge as the Flames took five straight corner kicks. Each time Hiland got a head on the ball and deflected it out, and on the final attempt Burke charged into a crowd in the six and punched a rocket to clear it.
Bodiker said that at that point Hiland was struggling to keep its composure as Mansfield Christian was applying the pressure, much like what happened in the finish to the 1-0 loss to River View earlier this year.
“I think I was most worried with about 10 minutes to play,” Bodiker said. “We hit that River View stretch where we just freaked out, and we had to calm down and make better decisions, and we really did that after we settled back in.”
Hiland regained its composure, and the defense completed the shut-out to capture the win.
“We worked really hard on communication, and that was a key,” senior defender Jerome Watson said. “We did a much better job today. We got pressed really hard because they really attacked us, and it got a little scary, but we kept our heads up and kept playing hard. I am so proud of this defense.”
The win was an emotional roller coaster for the Hawks, and Bodiker said the transitions the Hawks made will serve them well moving forward if they continue to play with the kind of passion they exhibited in this one.
“Sometimes you just have to win on guts, and we did that today,” Bodiker said. “We’ve won games like that before, and we have won games on skill before too, but today we really needed to gut one out to win, and we did that.”
The Flames outshot the Hawks 14-9 and took nine corner kicks to Hiland’s four while both Raber and Burke made four saves in goal and Gavin Kiliany made three.
But in this confidence builder for Hiland, it wasn’t the stats that mattered as much as the team-wide effort put forth that made the biggest impact.
Of course the most important statistic, the 1-0 final score, is fairly significant too.