STEPHENS CITY — When the Handley boys’ soccer team had its photo taken with the Class 4 Northwestern District championship trophy on Tuesday night, the Judges held up five fingers.
That’s the number of wins the team had to give up in early April after Handley was found to have used an ineligible player.
Instead of folding, the fourth-seeded Judges used that number as a rallying cry, knowing they would have to run the table in the district tournament to secure a regional berth.
They accomplished that mission Tuesday, getting two goals from freshman Isaac Carter on the way to a 3-1 triumph against Sherando at Arrowhead Stadium. Jonathan Romero scored the first goal for the Judges (11-7-1), who will now host Dulles District No. 2 seed Tuscarora on Tuesday. The Warriors ended their season 9-8-2.
“It means everything,” said Carter, who doubled his official goal total on the spring. “We worked so hard this season. We had lost five games and we wanted to prove it to the district. We stepped up.”
“We had a goal to go for,” defender Jackson Justice said. “We lost that first position which we would have had. We wanted to prove we were the real district champs and we just came out tonight and showed that.”
Handley coach Cosmo Balio said Tuesday’s result against the second-seeded Warriors was a relief.
“The monkey is off our back,” he said, noting that the triumph was the program’s 400th victory. “It’s been sitting there since April 6 when we had to give back five games. We had a long talk that day that our goals were still there and I think they understood it. … This is the first time we’ve been able to take a breath through this whole process.”
The Judges had not trailed in the postseason and the title game was no exception. Buoyed by the return of Julio Claros Lozano from injury, Handley kept the pressure on early against the Warriors and it finally paid off about 12 minutes into the contest.
After Balio moved him to the right side, Ramon Diaz-Guzman beat a defender down the sideline and made a beautiful cross that was just out of the reach of diving Sherando keeper Connor Sanders. The pass found Romero who split two defenders and buried the ball into the net from point-blank range.
“He was like a lightning bolt on the side,” Balio said of Diaz-Guzman. “To play the ball in and get the ball to Jonathan was huge. We talked about trying to keep them on their heels because we know how powerful they were coming forward.”
“We just lost our shape on the back side where we didn’t communicate well,” Sherando coach Pat Anderson said. “We did communicate, but it was kind of late.”
Sanders made a save on a close blast midway through the half and the Warriors began to exert some pressure as the half went on, mainly though long balls and turnovers. Joe Burton and Brody Purtell had decent chances but Judges keeper Owen Turnbull came up with saves.
“We had a mindset going in that we were going to sit in because knew they like to play long over the head,” Justice explained. “We tried to cover each other as much as we could.”
The Warriors opened the half pushing more forward and had a couple of good chances to tie the score. Turnbull made a sliding save in a scramble early and Landon Rust barely missed wide as he jackknifed to fire a shot on goal.
Finally about 26 minutes into the half, the Judges got some insurance from Carter, who had been a student at Legacy Christian prior to this season. With the ball being knocked around like a pinball in front of the Sherando goal mouth, Carter blasted in a shot that made it 2-0.
“The ball just came to me and I knew what to do,” Carter said. “I just saw it bouncing around and I anticipated where it was going. I just hit it as hard as I could and it went in.”
Justice, situated at the front post, said he was glad that the freshman was there to back him up. “I whiffed it. I won’t lie,” Justice said. “I missed it then I turned around and I saw Isaac put it in the net. I ran out there as fast as I could.”
Sanders made two spectacular saves around the 10-minute mark to keep it a two-goal deficit, but three minutes later the 6-foot-2 Carter came through again.
Jag Fitzsimmons curled a corner kick in from the right side and Carter, situated at the far post, deposited it into the net to make it 3-0.
“I’m really good at headers and I haven’t had many opportunities,” Carter said. “I just went up there, knew what to do and put it away.”
Balio credited assistant coach Scott Bucey with suggesting to get Carter more playing time. “My assistant Scott said, ‘Hey, he’s been putting the ball in the net during practices. Why don’t we take a chance on him?’ We did and Isaac proved us right today.”
Anderson was disappointed his team’s pressure did not net the desired results.
“We just couldn’t make the most of our opportunities and Handley did,” Anderson said. “That’s been the case every time we’ve played them this year. Once we get down, we have to come out of our shape and try to put a little more offense together and then we leave ourselves open in the back a little bit.”
The Warriors did get one on the scoreboard with a little more than five minutes on the clock. Tim Hill beat a defender and sent a shot in that glanced off a Handley defender and into the net.
Turnbull, who left after Handley’s third goal, had eight saves.
With regular-season champion Fauquier, who the Judges beat in the semifinals, receiving the other regional bid, the Warriors saw their season end, but they made remarkable strides from a 2-14-1 record in 2022.
After opening 0-4 this spring, Sherando closed the season 9-4-2.
“We went through injuries and all kinds of crazy stuff at the beginning of the year, trying to figure [out] different positions,” Anderson said. “They all stayed together. Where we were last year with only two wins to nine wins this year in a tough district, I couldn’t be any prouder of these guys the way they played. It was amazing.”
Handley players and coaches also feel a sense of accomplishment as they now prepare for a home playoff clash a little more than a month after major disappointment.
“It’s euphoria. I’m on Cloud Nine right now,” Justice said of Tuesday’s win. “After the game, I didn’t even celebrate. It was like, ‘Did this just happen?’”
“I told my coaching staff, ‘Today was like the day I was waiting for my kids to be born,’” Balio said. “I knew it was coming, but I wanted them to show they were the best team in the district. They’ve shown that through this run.”
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