DRAFFENVILLE – Heath was fighting for a second straight Region 1 championship in the school’s final year of competition.
Marshall County was fighting to get back to the top of the region heap, where it had won 12 titles – and to reverse defeats it has suffered in the last two meetings with the Pirates.
The match was as dramatic as all that motivation and emotion would suggest. Marshall County took a 2-1 victory in the region finale Thursday night at Colburn Stadium, and players, second-year head coach Andy Pagel and a raucous crowd let loose with a lusty celebration.
Heath fought frantically as the time melted away, and the Marshals battled to keep the tying goal out of the net.
“There was a lot of stuff going on,” a weary Pagel said after the match ended. “I was just trying to make sure they played until the final whistle.”
The 13th trophy was the prize Pagel sought when he was named to replace Don Walker after Walker’s retirement lst year. A former MC player in the 1980s, Pagel served as an assistant coach to Walker for 11 years.
That stint was interrupted by one year as head coach at Calloway County High School.
His first Marshal team last year finished 13-7-2 after losing in the region semifinal to Heath.
“We’re so excited,” Pagel said.
Heath won last year’s region tourney clash in a penalty-kick shootout after the match ended in a draw. In one meeting between the two teams this year, on Sept. 22 in the Marshals’ Orange Classic, Heath took a 4-1 victory.
But Pagel was confident.
“We just knew that we were better,” he said.
The Pirates played with senior Edgar Yanez, who left the team for personal reasons late in the season. Yanez scored all four goals in the Sept. 22 match against Marshall County.
But Pagel said the Marshals were short-handed and playing with some “walking wounded” in the earlier encounter with Heath.
“We felt like if they played their high line like they did, it would be awfully tough to beat but we would get through,” he said. “And they play that way and they play it well. But we replicated it in practice and we’ve got four guys that can run it.”
Marshall County took the early lead, but less than five minutes after intermission, Heath senior McKenzie Brindley knotted the score. The tally came on a second-chance effort for the Pirate senior.
Brindley had a penalty kick from short range. The kick was blocked by Marshal goalkeeper Austin Droke, but the ball ricocheted to Droke’s right, and Brindley deftly kicked the rebound into the net at the 35:49 mark.
Sophomore Nathan Solomon, the Marshals’ leading scorer, didn’t give his team long to agonize over the lost lead. Less than two minutes elapsed before Solomon booted a shot past Heath goalkeeper Caleb Stonecipher into the right corner of the net to make it 2-1. It was his 17th goal of the season.
The memory of a missed opportunity earlier in the match was haunting Solomon.
“I was determined to get a goal back,” he said. “Gar [Garrison Wagner] was dribbling the ball and somehow just got through and I just ended up on it and scored. It feels great.”
The go-ahead goal didn’t clinch anything, but it did give Pagel some relief.
“It made me able to breathe again,” he said wryly.
The Marshals played most of the match with a one-goal advantage. Early in the match, Hayden Evans kicked a short shot into the back of the Heath net at the 37:50 mark. Solomon’s approach from the left side drew Stonecipher, and Evans was wide open when Solomon booted the ball across the box.
Solomon and another sophomore, David Penney, have emerged as leaders of this team, along with senior Brock Herndon, who was named the regional tournament’s MVP.
Both the younger players have battled injuries this year, especially Penney, who came out of Thursday night’s game twice after he took an impact from a Heath player’s cleat just above his left knee.
“He just kind of came in and kicked me right up on top of the knee,” Penney said. “It pulled my quad or something. Gotta keep on playing through it.”
Solomon played at less than full speed because of a groin pull, Pagel said.
“Nathan is absolutely relentless at practice,” Pagel said. “He prepares, he gets his body ready, he eats well – he does everything that you’re supposed to do to get ready for a big moment like this.”
Penney has been the go-to guy on several occasions late in the season and in the playoffs.
“He is the grittiest kid,” Pagel said. “He’s the kid you want to get in a foxhole with. He will save your life. He will bail you out. He creates something from nothing night in and night out.”
Heath ends its final season with a region-best 18-2-2 record. The loss to Marshall County was the only one for the Pirates in Region 1 competition.