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Kettle Run claims East Region boys soccer tournament title over Culpeper

Saturday, Jun. 7 | By Brandon Hartman
The Kettle Run Cougars won the Class 3A East Region tournament championship Friday at Liberty High. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
The seniors on Kettle Run’s boys soccer team went from touching the region championship trophy Friday afternoon to grabbing diplomas as they walked across a stage at night.

Many students look at graduation as one of the greatest days in their lives, but for those Kettle Run players, Friday had even greater significance after the Cougars beat the Culpeper Blue Devils, 3-0, in the final of the Class 3A East Region tournament at Liberty High to win the program’s first region title.

“This really might be the best day of my life. I know that’s almost a cliché thing to say after winning, but I think it’s true for me today,” Cougars senior Jacob Heiston said. “It’s a huge achievement. … We are very proud to have won a regional championship for Kettle Run. It feels great to make history.”

The Cougars entered Friday’s game having already earned a berth in the 3A state tournament by defeating Lafayette, 3-1, in the region semifinals. That achievement was likely the highest on Kettle Run’s priority list because it had never before reached the state tournament. However, Cougars coach Philip Roper wanted to add a regional championship trophy to the school cabinet.

“I was telling them before the game to be careful; that this might be the very picture of a trap game,” he said. “We got that state birth and can be happy with it, but we had to focus on Culpeper. We beat them three times before this game already, so complacency was a threat.”

It looked as though Roper’s fears might come true early in the rematch. The Blue Devils refused to give an inch to the Cougars, packing it in on defense early and all but parking the bus in front of the goal. Kettle Run’s attacking players had no room to get clean looks at the net.

Culpeper defenders’ sole intention seemed to be keeping the ball away from the Cougars’ star front men, freshman Kevin Coleman and senior Evan Szklennik. The Blue Devils played rough and tight on that duo and forced them to give up the ball.

That defensive game plan worked for the most part, limiting Kettle Run’s offense to only a few scoring chances in the first half. The Cougars, however, eventually scored with about 20 minutes remaining before halftime.

Off a Coleman free kick, Heiston hit a low, snap header past the Culpeper keeper that gave Kettle Run a 1-0 lead. It seemed to send shockwaves through the Blue Devils and they tried to rally, replacing their defensive game plan for a more offensive one.

The Cougars started to dominate possession and shot attempts. Reece Cooke made the score 2-0 right before halftime, coolly slotting home a penalty kick he had earned a few seconds prior. The freshman winger had his legs taken out from under him by a Culpeper player while running after a loose ball in the box, a blatant foul he didn’t understand.

“The ball was obviously going to the keeper, and was out of my reach, but the defender still clipped me on the ankles,” Cooke said. “It was a lucky break and I just stayed relaxed and made the shot.”

Szklennik then made the score 3-0 one minute into the second half. The Cougars’ all-time leading scorer, he made his team-leading 27th goal this season via the right post after bending a free kick in from the left side.

“I was fouled pretty hard to win that free kick in the first place, so I was really amped up to take it,” the senior said. “I wanted to make them pay for fouling me like that.”

The Culpeper backline frustrated Szklennik with close attention in the first half, but he was all smiles after putting his team ahead by three goals.

“It was a great pick-me-up,” he said. “The first half was slow and the defense sat back and tried to clog everything up, but things opened up after the first goal.”

The Blue Devils seemed to lose hope after that goal and the Cougars were able to keep most of the possession as the clock ticked. Kettle Run’s star players got to rest for the remainder of the half as reserve players got some important playoff experience.

“It was a great feeling to see the smiles on the guys’ faces when they lifted the trophy,” Roper said. “They have really been working well together and are a great group of kids. We are very excited at what we have done so far but there is still a job to do. One more game is the only thing we are thinking about.”

The Cougars will play Blacksburg on Friday in the state semifinals at Amherst High. With graduation in the past, they now have only that to focus on.

“The mind now is all on soccer,” Szklennik said. “We really want to do this for Coach Roper. He has done so much for us and Kettle Run soccer.

“It’s my last run as a senior as well, so I want to make it a good one,” he said. “We are going to get a great week of practice in and prepare.”

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