Trailing Savannah 2-1 at halftime, Hornets post three unanswered goals in last half for third district title. To visit KC: St. Pius X Tuesday (Nov. 12, 2019) for state opener
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Despite two regular-season losses to the Chillicothe (Mo.) HS soccer Hornets, including 4-0 on the same Bob Fairchild Field at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II exactly two weeks earlier, the underdog Savannah Savages entered Thursday night’s (Nov. 7, 2019) Class 2 District 16 Tournament championship match against top-seeded CHS confident with a sense of destiny.
After all, three nights earlier, in the same scenario, they’d taken on a higher-seeded team, third-seeded SHS had avenged a pair of regular-campaign conquests by Maryville, stunning the Spoofhounds 2-1 in overtime. Why couldn’t they do it again?
Citing the oft-stated sports maxim, “It’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season,” Chillicothe head coach Tim Cunningham observed after the match, “That’s been a saying for a long time, because it’s true.”
When Savage forward Austin Kretzer scored goals from unlikely spots in the 13th and 32nd minutes, Savannah had the Hornets backed against a wall at halftime, holding a 2-1 lead. In all likelihood, if the hosts did not net the next goal, their dream of capturing their program’s third district championship and state tournament berth in six years likely would vanish like the exhaled breath vapors on the sub-freezing evening.
Put to the test, Chillicothe bowed its neck and delivered a forceful response, leveling the score within the first 3-1/2 minutes of the second half and pumping in three unanswered goals after intermission to claim the district crown and state trip by a 4-2 margin.
Junior forward Mason Baxter, now the second-most-prolific single-season goal scoring in Hornets history, was in the right spot to convert the work of several teammates into the equalizer 3:28 into the second 40-minutes half.
Not quite 14 minutes later, good work by freshman reserve attacking midfielder Wyatt Brandsgaard in out-battling a Savage for it, kept the ball only 10 yards away from the SHS goal. That allowed sophomore Drake Cosgrove to step in and, almost taking the ball off Brandsgaard’s toes, hook a low shot just inside the left goalpost for the go-ahead tally at 57:26 of the match.
With Chillicothe increasingly dominating possession over the final 20-25 minutes, Baxter effectively sealed the Hornets’ comeback win by dashing onto a beautifully-placed and paced crossing pass from Cosgrove deep inside the Savannah penalty area and, after having his first short-range shot blocked by goalkeeper Chase Nicholson, collected the rebound off the left post and, from only a couple of yards out and with Nicholson prone, tapped home the second try for a 2-goals lead with 13:57 remaining.
“I thought our guys really relaxed after we scored that (tying) second goal,” Tim Cunningham, ninth-year head coach who has guided the Hornets booters to their three district crowns, reflected for the C-T (see embedded video with this posting). “I thought we really played well in the second half.”
By living up to their No. 1 seeding with their rally, CHS’ Hornets earned a rematch with the team which shared the Midland Empire Conference title with them this season, Kansas City: St. Pius X.
SPX’s Warriors, whose 3-1 home win over Chillicothe on Oct. 10 denied the Hornets an outright conference crown, will host the first-round match of the Class 2 state tournament next Tuesday (Nov. 12) after earning the District 15 championship Wednesday night by a 3-0 count over KC: Frontier STEM.
“I think the guys are anxious to get a chance to play them again,” Cunningham predictably commented in the post-match interview Thursday.
“Any time you make the state tournament, you’re going to play a good team and they’re a really good team. Great tradition.”
With its third district title in six years, the Chillicothe program – only in its 13th year of existence – has built a reasonably-good tradition of both competitiveness and success itself.
In improving its 2019 won-lost record to 11-9-1 with its third triumph over Savannah, Chillicothe made a winning season a mathematical certainty. Beyond the three state-tourney appearances, that makes six such seasons this decade and a seventh in which they finished at .500. All of those have come during Cunningham’s tenure.
Thursday’s match was barely underway when the host Hornets took the upper hand.
Just over 90 seconds into the action, Cosgrove got the ball about 15-20 yards onto the Savannah end and in the center of the artificial-surfaced pitch.
Knowing that Baxter’s speed makes him a constant threat to get past defensive backfields from the outside, Cosgrove took a quick peek ahead and, indeed, saw Baxter putting his speed into high gear about 15 yards ahead and to the right. Quickly striking a through pass between defenders in order to prevent Baxter from going offside, he used just the right pace and angle on the pass for his teammate to catch up to it just as Baxter reached the top of the SHS “18” (penalty area).
With one touch of the ball as he veered to his left a bit to gain a better angle to shoot from, Baxter gave himself time and space to both see what Nicholson would do – stay back or charge him – and set his steps for a possible shot, if the ’keeper came at him. When the SHS goalkeeper did so, Chillicothe’s top trigger man had plenty of net to shoot at, right-footing the ball home from eight yards. Only 1:41 into the contest, the Hornets were in front.
Chillicothe continued to push the attack in the wake of that goal, but, despite some promising opportunities on both rushes and set pieces, it did not add on. Eventually, that gave Savannah a chance to stabilize and start to gain more possession time.
As the match moved toward the end of its 13th minute of play, Savannah had an attempt to play the ball toward the area in front of the Chillicothe net turned back, but a Hornet, not realizing he had time and space to control the ball and send it back toward midfield, simply drove the ball out of bounds about 20 yards out from the north end of the pitch.
Normally a throw-in from there doesn’t cause a big problem, but, when Kretzer out-foxed two CHS defenders and popped ahead into open space on the far right edge (from Savannah’s perspective) of the Chillicothe penalty area, a soft, bouncing throw-in found him with room to send a shot toward the net.
With Kretzer perhaps only about 15 yards from the left corner of the Hornets’ goal, even if at a fairly-acute angle, Hornets sophomore goalkeeper Jaxon Albertson had to be positioned to deny a short toward the closest portion of the net. When Kretzer, whether with intent or not, popped the ball high into the air in the direction of the goal, it arched far over the Chillicothe netminder’s head before its descent brought just under the crossbar and into the far (defensive right) side of the goal, leveling the score at 1-1.
That seemingly-innocent play seemed to unnerve and deflate the Hornets a bit and Savannah began carrying the play to it.
Despite that, the Hornets’ defense was sound enough on its own end and up to midfield to prevent any “grade-A” chances for the Savages to go in front, even though the Savages were spending a lot of time on the CHS half of the pitch.
It turned out that preventing any close-range tests of Albertson wasn’t enough to keep the visitors at bay.
A foul whistled on CHS in the center of the field and much closer to midfield than the Hornets’ goal about 8-1/2 minutes before halftime didn’t raise the blood pressure of the CHS team, coaches, or fans, but it turned out it should have.
With the ball marked between 41 and 42 yards away from the Chillicothe goal, Kretzer was assigned by the SHS coaches to take the direct free kick. Sending a hard, rising drive toward the net, the Savage watched it land seven yards away from Albertson, who had opted to stay back on the goal line.
Whether getting a slight change of speed or angle from the bounce, Kretzer’s kick wound up reaching the ’keeper on a sharp bounce just above shoulder height. Albertson chose to try to get his hands up there in time to catch it, but had the ball squirt in between and drop into the net behind him. The literal long shot had beaten the odds and put SHS up 2-1 after 31:41.
In the immediate aftermath of the second Savannah goal and then during the mid-match break, Cunningham said Albertson’s teammates made sure to communicate their continued belief in his capabilities, despite the slipup.
“I think that’s what I love about this team, almost more than anything, is just how they’re there for each other,” the coach shared. “… Jaxon needed ’em and all 28 were there for him.”
“Never underestimate the power of team chemistry,” Cunningham continued. “We have it. … That makes us a fun team to watch.”
Chillicothe also spent halftime aware it must score again or its season would end. Cunningham said the break’s timing was of great benefit for his team.
“We’re usually pretty even (in emotion level before a match) – we don’t get too high, get too low, but we were really amped up before the game,” Cunningham disclosed after the match. “I could just tell by our warmup and our body language.
“That’s why, I thought, the first 10-12 minutes, we dominated the match because of our energy and our enthusiasm. Then we kind of ran out of energy and enthusiasm for a while. We really needed halftime to clear our heads, take a deep breath, and then go out and play like we’ve played the whole season. I thought we did that in the second half.”
Its offense working toward the north goal in the last half on the fortunately-mostly-windless night, Chillicothe came out looking to push the pace immediately, hoping to get level before too much more pressure mounted. Within 3-1/2 minutes, it got the dividend it sought.
An outside-right run by Baxter deep into the SHS “18” forced the Savages to clear his attempted centering pass over the end line, giving the Hornets a corner kick on the offensive right.
As often he does – but not always, Cunningham signalled for 6’2” sweeper back Dalton Ripley to move all the way forward to within five yards of the Savages’ goal to either create traffic around the goalkeeper or possibly have a chance to try a header off a high kick by trigger man Cosgrove.
In a planned set piece, three Hornets – Baxter, Ben Cueni-Smith, and Chace Corbin – charged from their initial position at the top of the penalty area toward the Savannah goal just as the corner kick was delivered.
As intended, Cosgrove’s right-footed drive rose about 10 feet into the air at its zenith before sinking as it neared the left goalpost (from the defensive perspective). As it reached the vicinity of the goalpost a few yards out from it, Nicholson jumped in the hope of snaring it, but because Ripley was leaping to try to get his head on it right alongside, all the ’keeper could do was get one hand on the ball, redirecting into a swarm of players from both teams in the goalmouth area.
A Savage tried to clear it away, but the floating ball carried right to Cueni-Smith only about seven yards from the goal. His leaping header went back toward Ripley and the goalkeeper around head high, but not with a lot of speed.
Because Ripley happened to be closer to Cueni-Smith, in order to prevent the Hornet from possibly having a chance to head it in for the tying tally, Nicholson reached above Ripley’s right shoulder and punched the ball away.
However, the desperation move succeeded only in directing the ball back toward the area directly in front of the SHS goal again and this time it would be a Hornet – and not just any Hornet – who would get to it first.
As the punched ball bounced up from the turf to just above waist height, Baxter stepped forward and jumped, striking the ball sharply with his lower leg and sending into the netting for the equalizer at 43:28 of the match.
“One thing we’ve talked about all season is we want to be fast starters. … We wanted to put high pressure on them and try to get a goal early in the match and we were able to do that and then again in the second half.”
With the score once more knotted – now a 2-2, Chillicothe had removed some of the pressure. Although Savannah didn’t shrivel up and blow away, after about 10 minutes of back-and-forth action mostly in the midfield third of the pitch, the home team began to assert itself.
As the midpoint of the final half came into sight, CHS’ Baxter again went wide and deep on the right side to create a path for a centering cross pass. An initial clearing attempt by a Savage only led to a Chillicothean directing the ball back forward into the center of the SHS penalty area.
There, Brandsgaard managed to win the “50-50” ball just long enough for the ball to roll a couple of yards closer to the net into a bit of unmanned space. As the CHS ninth grader strode toward it and stretched a leg forward to try to control it, Cosgrove swooped in quickly from his teammate’s left and swung his right foot into the ball.
The sophomore’s shot, although not of great velocity, had just enough speed and placement to get it past Nicholson’s outstretched left arm and a few yards inside the left corner of the net. With 22:34 remaining in regulation time, Chillicothe not only had erased the halftime deficit, but gone back in front.
Although it still was a 1-goal match, because Chillicothe now was rarely letting Savannah get any clean touches on the ball on the CHS defensive end of the pitch, the thin margin felt more comfortable than it often might. With the Hornets also coming close to creating more high-grade scoring chances, the sense was that CHS either would add on or be able to close it out at 3-2.
Eventually, less than nine minutes after Cosgrove restored his team to the lead, he and Baxter combined for a well-executed insurance tally.
Having the ball sent by a teammate in the center of the pitch to him wide on the left side about 30 yards from the Savannah goal, Cosgrove, with a couple of Savannah backs well-positioned between himself and the goal, dribbled the ball back toward the center for a few strides, buying a little time and space to look for his best alternative.
Not surprisingly, his first thought was to check for Baxter on the offensive right side again. Not surprisingly, Baxter’s thought process was right in sync with his teammate’s.
Looping just a bit to his right to build up speed without going offside, Baxter sped past the defender marking him just after Cosgrove had delivered a right-footed diagonal pass through the vacant center of the field at the top of the SHS penalty area.
Now behind the SHS back, Baxter tested Nicholson from a sharp angle with a right-footed shot from merely five yards away. Although the Savannah goalkeeper had positioned himself well to block that shot, he could not secure the ball, which banked off of him to his left.
While the carom could have still sent the ball into the net or wide of the goalpost and beyond the end line, creating a stoppage for a corner kick, it instead hit the goal post and rolled right back to Baxter. When, with Nicholson flat on the turf, the Hornet directed the ball into the goal, he had simultaneously given his team a win-clinching 2-goals lead, completed a 3-goals “hat trick,” and posted his 26th goal of the season.
That season total makes the 11th grader now owner of the second-largest single-season goals total in Hornets history, breaking a deadlock with the program’s earliest star – Jacob Rockhold – and mid-2010s standout Derek Hussey – which had been created by his tying tally earlier in the half.
Having started Thursday’s match tied with another former CHS great – Steven Cooper – for the No. 4 spot on the single-season list with 23 goals, Baxter ended it trailing only Jon Kline, who pumped in 29 goals for the 2013 Hornets.
Following Baxter’s third goal Thursday, the final 14 minutes played out very calmly with the Hornets continuing to deny the sagging Savages anything even faintly resembling a scoring chance.
As the final seconds were counted down over Litton Stadium’s public address system, the CHS players on the pitch turned and began racing toward the team’s east-sidelines bench to begin celebrating their newly-earned district title.
While it is their third district crown in six years, Thursday was the first time the Hornets had earned that distinction on their home field. Each of the previous two came in tournaments which Cameron hosted.
Statistically, while Baxter was bulging the cords of the Savannah net three times, Cosgrove’s lone tally – his eighth this season, second on the team to Baxter, was the match-winner.
Additionally, his “helpers” on Baxter’s first and third goals boosted Cosgrove’s assists total this year to nine, second to Cueni-Smith’s 15, the latest of which was earned by his header that the SHS goalkeeper punched to Baxter for the second CHS goal.
For facilitating – even if perhaps unintentionally – Cosgrove’s goal, Brandsgaard picked up his fourth “dime.”
CHS goalkeeper Albertson ended up one more save than goals allowed, stopping three Savannah tries.