Prior to their game Friday, the Kettle Run Cougars had won 11 matches via shutout.
They had allowed only six goals all season.
They hadn't given up more than one goal in a game.
So when senior striker Evan Szklennik
gave Kettle Run the lead a mere 34 seconds into their state semifinals match against Blacksburg, the Cougars appeared destined to win and continue their quest for the first state championship in school history. Szklennik's quick strike, however, began to worry Kettle Run coach Philip Roper more than it concerned Blacksburg coach Shelley Blumental.
The Bruins justified Roper's fears by scoring three goals in the final 48 minutes en route winning, 3-2, in the Class 3A state boys soccer tournament at Amherst High.
"That first goal was great, but at the same time, it hurt us," Roper said afterward. "We kind of got into a mentality of, 'Oh, hey, we can do this the whole game.'"
The Cougars' offense stalled after their initial goal, leaving the Kettle Run defense to deal with an explosive Blacksburg offense unlike anything it had seen this season.
The Bruins used a smorgasbord of free kicks, throw-ins and corner kicks to pressure Kettle Run's defense until Dan Friedberg scored the game-winner with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining in the second half. Teig Lesko took a throw-in, heaving the ball into the box where Kelby Zeiger flicked it to Friedberg for a header that barely slipped inside the left post.
With the win, Blacksburg improved to 18-3-1 and advanced to play in the state final Saturday against undefeated Western Albemarle (23-0), which beat the Bruins, 1-0, earlier this month. Western Albemarle also beat Culpeper, 6-0, in the state semifinals Friday.
"That tells you how great of a team they are," Blumental said. "They're as great as advertised."
The Bruins will attempt Saturday to win their 13th state championship in history.
The Cougars, meanwhile, will bemoan squandering their best opportunity to win a state title in program history. With 11 seniors, they won the 3A East Region
tournament championship and amassed a 17-2 record, but could not add a victory at state.
"We'll remember the regional championship, but we'll always remember getting so close [to the state title] and not being able to pull through," Kettle Run goalkeeper Jacob Brown said. "So many emotions."
Brown and his fellow seniors futilely tried to fight back tears as they lingered on the field with Roper following the loss.
"I've never really been on a team that I've loved so much," senior defender Danny Mattson said. "It kind of sucks to end your soccer career … but we had a good run."
A center back, Mattson's Kettle Run defense had a tremendous run this season, which made Blacksburg's offensive production Friday a bit surprising. No other team had scored a pair of goals against the Cougars, let alone three in a span of 48 minutes.
The Bruins' offense "is definitely better than everybody else's," Brown said of Kettle Run's opponents. "That was the most pressure I've faced."
"Much more fire power," Mattson said.
Blacksburg did much of its damage on set pieces, creating scoring opportunities via five corner kicks, 14 free kicks and an even greater number of long throw-ins that Lesko vaulted into the box.
"I haven't seen many teams doing that," Brown said. For other teams "it's just throw-ins [directed] backwards."
"We spend a lot of time practicing our restarts," Blumental said.
Lesko's throw-ins often gave the Bruins opportunities to catch Brown off guard as the ball bounced around in a scrum of players.
"Lord knows where that ball's going to come out," Roper said. "It's really hard if you're a keeper. … We just didn't do a good job of getting" the ball cleared.
Brown still made six saves, including a phenomenal lunging stop that preserved a 2-2 tie with less than 8 minutes remaining in the second half. Harris Salom received a cross near the far, left post and headed a hard, point-blank shot toward the net. Brown leaped and deflect it, though.
"I thought that was in," Blumental said. "A tremendous save."
Brown, however, couldn't repeat the feat two minutes later against Friedberg.
Allowing three goals was a disappointing final performance for Mattson and fellow senior Jacob Heiston. As center backs, they anchored the Cougars' exceptional defense all season.
"Those two guys … have been unstoppable," Roper said. But "when you get that many free kicks it's hard to keep all of them from getting into the goal."
Regardless, Kettle Run had opportunities to pull away from Blacksburg, even after relinquishing its 1-0 lead and falling behind 2-1 early in the second half with goals by the Bruins' Bradford Mills and Zeiger.
Szklennik scored his second goal with 24:46 remaining in the match to tie the game, 2-2. Initiating the play, junior midfielder Garrett Magill switched Kettle Run's point of attack with a long right-to-left kick that found Kevin Coleman. The freshman forward then crossed the ball to Szklennik near the left post, and Szklennik redirected it inside the right post with a soft touch.
With new-found momentum, Coleman and the Cougars continued to create scoring opportunities – none better than a penalty kick awarded after a Bruins defender took down Coleman in the box. Freshman Reece Cook lined up for the penalty kick with 12:39 remaining in the second half and the score tied, 2-2. He missed wide left, though.
"Sometimes that can be a back-breaker," Roper said of the miss. "But, afterward, I didn't really think our play dropped off. We still kept the pressure. ... Reece came back. He kept playing strong."
Kettle Run created second-half scoring opportunities with runs up the sidelines rather than playing the ball vertically up the middle of the field as it had much of the first half.
Roper said it took a while to make that adjustment after Szklennik's quick goal in the opening minute of the match materialized up the middle. Zeiger tried to play a ball backward at the start of the game and the Cougars quickly intercepted it, setting up Szklennik, who turned, dribbled in and squeezed a shot between the right post and Blacksburg's keeper.
"He had a beautiful shot," Blumental said. "We were down  seconds into the game, so I give our kids a lot of credit for coming back."
Szklennik finished his career as Kettle Run's all-time leader scorer, and he was one of 10 Cougars named to the all-Conference 27 teams.
Roper, however, will remember the Cougars for other reasons.
"Just their whole mentality," he said. "It was never arrogant; never cocky. … One of the funnest, best teams I've ever coached.
"Not one of," he added. "They are" the best.