By Ben Kaufmann
FAIRFAX: By the time Levi Webb hit the 30th penalty kick of Friday’s quarterfinal shootout, two hours and thirty-five minutes had passed since the opening kickoff and it would be easy to forget the classic game which had unfolded over the course of the afternoon.
It would, however, be a shame to forget all that preceded three rounds of penalty kicks and the winner from Webb to send his Enosburg Hornets to a Tuesday semifinal. Casual fans have a tendency to believe that a lack of scoring is a sign of a boring game, but Friday’s contest which saw (No. 7) Enosburg hand (No. 2) BFA-Fairfax its first loss, 0-0 (10-9 penalties) was far from boring.
“We knew we matched up very evenly, county rivals, the whole deal,” said Hornet coach Randy Swainbank. “We knew it was going to be a great game and it was. It didn’t disappoint, I think the folks who showed up here got a good show.”
A pair of friendly rivals who know each other all too well, it should come as little surprise that Friday played out like an elite chess match. A rundown of each squad’s moves is ahead, but it’s important to note that the kings of Friday were the goalies. Enosburg’s Ethan Jackson made eight saves throughout the 110 minutes of regulation and overtime before making two diving stops in the first round of penalties.
Jackson’s counterpart, Kolton Gillian, also made eight saves in the run of open play. In penalties, Gillian had to match Jackson’s two saves to keep his team alive in the first round and did just that. In the second round, he again had to stop the final penalty he faced to extend BFA’s season and did just that. He made another save in the third round, but two Fairfax misses doomed the Bullets and allowed Enosburg to advance. Gillian also took two penalties on Friday and made both, the only other Bullet to make all his kicks was Matt Spiller (3/3).
“I’ll be honest, he didn’t want to play goalie all year, he’s a striker at heart,” Bullet coach Jake Hubbard said of Gillian. “But we had a huge hole to fill and we believed in him from day one and he put the team on his back, throughout the game and all year long.”
A bit of vengeance was in order on Friday for Enosburg as well. Though Fairfax (8-1) was an innocent bystander in the process, Enosburg (7-2) was ready to be on the other side of things after losing in last year’s quarterfinal as a No. 2 seed to No. 7 Mill River. Mission accomplished: Enosburg will travel to (No. 3) Green Mountain Union on Tuesday for a semifinal and a shot at its first title (and title game) since 2006.
Surprisingly, this was just the second time the Franklin County rivals have met in the postseason, though the Hornets have bounced back and forth between Division II and Division III. In 2009, Enosburg topped Fairfax in the playdown round before losing its next game and in 1994, Fairfax beat Enosburg in a quarterfinal en route to its only championship in program history.
“It’s always a good one with Fairfax, whether it’s the first game of the season or when we rarely get to play them come playoff time,” Swainbank said. “Both defensive units did great, both keepers did great, a battle in the midfield. Both teams had their chances, it was just a classic Mountain League battle.”
“They knew us, but we knew them,” said Hubbard. Hubbard’s assistant coach, Curtis Garrow, was a goalkeeper for Enosburg under Swainbank in the early 2000’s.
“They’re not a seven-seed, I’ll tell you that right now. They’re going to give Green Mountain a hell of a game and they’ve got a real good chance at it. This is a Franklin County rivalry, we don’t like each other – in a friendly way. But it’s fun to play against Enosburg, you just never know who’s going to win.”
Again, the lack of goals scored throughout 80 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute overtime periods is no signal of a lack of excitement. If one were to give the nod of “deserving to win” to one school over the other, Enosburg did hit the goalpost twice on the afternoon while Fairfax never came quite that close. But the shots on goal were 8-8 on the day and the only unquestionable truth on Friday was that neither team deserved to lose.
Isaac Decker had Friday’s first good chance, breaking free only to have a shot saved by Jackson just three minutes into the first half. Webb forced a diving save from Gillian 13 minutes later and Fairfax responded with Owen Demar sending a corner-kick offering from Reece Decker just wide a couple minutes later. Midway through the opening half, Enosburg’s Eric Antillon did well to clear a dangerous cross from BFA’s Jonah Czeck. As the first half wound down, Brendan Deuso had a pair of good looks – one went just high and the other was saved by Gillian, and Spiller shot two dangerous free kicks at Jackson.
Spiller had a handful of free kicks from just outside the box on Friday, five in regulation and one late in the second overtime to be exact. A master of such attempts, Spiller never missed by much but couldn’t get one past Jackson to end the game prior to penalties.
The second half saw its share of excitement too. Kamden Lovelette put a couple of shots just wide of the BFA goal in the first six minutes. A nice stream of passes between Deuso, Webb, Blair Archambault and Foster Hutchins nearly turned into a Hornet goal. Carl Bruso headed a Spiller corner kick inches wide of the Hornet goal and a nice chip from Isaac Decker to Luca Chayer required a stellar leaping header from Peter Stiebris to prevent a shot on goal for the Bullets.
The day’s brightest chances came in the latter part of the second half from Hornet set pieces. Deuso struck a 20-yard free kick, with 18 minutes to go, at the top right corner of the goal. The attempt had Gillian beaten, but clanged off the goalpost to keep the game scoreless. Five minutes later, Enosburg earned an indirect kick just eight yards away from goal, but Reece Decker and Spiller charged to block the shot.
Hutchins and Ethan Hogaboom each had shots late in the second half for Enosburg, with Hutchins shooting at Gillian and Hogaboom having his attempt blocked by Reece Decker. Bruso put an 18-yard shot just wide for the Bullets and Jackson slid to deny Chayer a breakaway attempt late in regulation.
Scoreless through 80, neither team took its foot off the gas in the overtime periods where defense stood out. A deep ball to Bruso was cleared well by Shea Howrigan and, at the other end, Wyatt Magnan denied Hutchins a good opportunity then forced Danny Antillon’s shot into the side netting. Eric Antillon tackled a chance away from Reece Decker midway through the first overtime and each keeper made an important save in the final minutes of those first 15.
Chances were fewer in the second overtime, moreso due to fatigue than any fear of making a mistake. Howrigan made another clutch defensive play to break up a pass from Isaac Decker to Demar and Spiller’s final free kick of the afternoon sailed just over the crossbar with a minute to go. As in regulation, the best chance of the overtime period came on a Deuso free kick. After Hutchins drew a foul just outside the Fairfax box, Deuso struck the kick to Gillian’s right. It was a challenging shot and Gillian wasn’t able to hang on to it, but did hit the ball enough so when it slipped over the goal line it was outside the post.
Penalties, it had become clear, were the only way these teams were going to determine a winner. Though early, it looked as though zeroes would remain on the scoreboard no matter what. Fairfax went first and put its initial shot wide, Enosburg followed with a try off the post and then Jackson made a diving stop as the teams combined to miss their first three kicks. Desuo took Enosburg’s second attempt and fans got to witness a ball hit the back of the goal for the first time in more than two hours. Spiller got Fairfax back on track with his first kick and Lovelette matched that as Enosburg took a 2-1 lead through three kicks in the best-of-five format.
Isaac Decker stepped up and made BFA’s fourth attempt before Gillian showed the first of his shootout heroics with a diving stop on Enosburg’s fourth try. After Jackson dove to his left to stop BFA’s fifth try, Gillian needed to stop the final Hornet kick to force a second round and dove to his left to make that happen.
With it becoming more and more apparent that these two teams were as even as could be, the referees asked kickers to hurry to the spot when it was their turn as daylight was dwindling with who knows how many more rounds of kicks to go.
Up first for Fairfax in the second round, clearly ready to send a message, was Gillian. In contrast to the first round, each team made its first four kicks in the second (Gillian, Bruso, Spiller, Isaac Decker for Fairfax and Webb, Deuso, Lovelette and Howrigan for Enosburg). BFA’s fifth shot was saved, forcing yet another diving stop from Gillian to extend the Bullet season a little more.
Gillian again stepped up to take the first kick of the third round and converted. Dueso matched for Enosburg before BFA missed its second try. Up next for Enosburg was Hutchins, who had seen his first two attempts saved by Gillian. Gillian got fingertips on this try, but Hutchins’ strike was too strong and Enosburg took a 2-1 lead through two kicks in the third round. Spiller and Lovelette each made their next tries before BFA’s fourth went off the goalpost and Enosburg’s fourth was saved by Gillian.
Still down, 3-2, with one kick left for each team, Fairfax needed a make and a stop. They got the make on a confident strike by Bruso, but Webb buried the final kick of the day to send Enosburg to Tuesday’s semifinal.
Fairfax went with the flow in the shootout, utilizing eight different players (the team can send out a new lineup for each best-of-five round). Enosburg stuck with the same five shooters, though it did switch the order the third time through. Spiller (3/3) and Gillian (2/2) were perfect for Fairfax, while Deuso and Lovelette each went 3 of 3 for Enosburg and Webb made 2 of 3, including the game winner.
“After each of the five kicks I gave them the option to stay or switch and every one of them wanted to stay,” Swainbank said.
“Hat’s off to Fairfax, they had a great season and a great game today and we just got that last kick.”
The Hornets have a long drive to Chester for a 2:00 kickoff on Tuesday, but have a chance to leave Green Mountain Union with a first title berth since winning it all in 2006.
Unsure who his team would be facing, Swainbank said his team would have known what to expect if Winooski had won the quarterfinal at Green Mountain Union. But even though the Hornet coaching staff will need to do a little more research on GMU after they prevailed, Swainbank says his group won’t stray far from what has worked well so far this postseason.
“We’re not going to change anything at this point. We have a system that we’re playing in and the guys are good with it, we’re just going to stick with it.”
For Hubbard’s Bullets, the disappointing result on Friday does little to take away from an incredible season with a special group.
“These kids are about as tight as they come, they’re family. It’s amazing to be a part of a group of kids like this. They pick each other up when they’re down, they stick up for one another and they push through. It’s moments like this you really realize the quality you have in these kids and it’s amazing.”