EDEN — Matt Finn couldn’t have asked for much more from his Ellicottville boys soccer team. The Eagles just didn’t have quite enough to outlast the defending sectional champions on Tuesday.
As a No. 7 seed, Ellicottville rallied back to tie No. 3 Randolph twice. But ultimately, Randolph scored the deciding goal at a time when Ellicottville couldn’t answer, as Kaleb Steward’s double-overtime tally sent the Cardinals back to the Section 6 Class C championship game with a 3-2 semifinal win.
Marcus Evans gave the Cardinals the lead less than a minute into the game, converting a penalty kick called after just 30 seconds. The lead held for 30 minutes, until Kolby Aldrich scored for Ellicottville to tie it 1-1.
Likewise in the second half, Evans scored early on, flashing his speed to earn a breakaway on the left side and beating goalie Jamison Caldwell with a high shot to the right with 30:05 remaining.
Again, the Eagles found an answer from senior leading scorer Jack Snyder, whose shot bounced off the left post and in for a 2-2 tie with just 6:42 left in regulation. A senior midfielder, Snyder had missed the last few minutes of the first half and the start of the second after rolling his ankle. But then he re-entered the game, moved up to forward, and sent the game to overtime.
After a scoreless first 15-minute sudden-death overtime, Randolph finally broke through with the winner with 5:19 left in the second as Steward found the net on a high shot, set up by a direct kick due to an Ellicottville handball.
“I just told them, I said I am so unbelievably proud of them,” Finn said of the Eagles' upset bid falling short. “You come in a No. 7 seed, you go down 1-0 thirty seconds into the game on a penalty kick, you battle back to tie it, you go down 2-1, you battle back to tie it with not much time left. I said I am so unbelievably proud of them. They just never stopped. Subs came in, gave us what they got, just it was a great team effort. Unfortunately we came up a little bit short today.
“I'm super proud of their effort today, but hat's off to Randolph. They played well. Every challenge we gave them, they met.”
Randolph beat Ellicottville twice in the regular season, in CCAA East play, 4-0 and 2-1. But Cardinals coach Dave Levandowski said the Eagles were healthier in the second meeting, and expected great effort in the semifinal rematch.
“The thing about the Ellicottville kids is they play 100 percent all the time,” Levandowski said. “Whatever they are missing — maybe missed touches here and there, they're not connecting their passes — they're going 1,000 miles an hour on every ball. With that, it tested us to be able to keep the composure to pass the ball a little bit. I didn't think it took too long.”
Caldwell made 12 saves, including multiple leaping stops to keep the Eagles (9-10) alive in overtime.
“Unbelievable,” Finn said. “He was in the right position every time, right where he needed to be. Those goals, no one's going to stop those goals that they scored. He just put himself in the right spot to save us and hold his end up. He's going to be a heck of a goalie going into his senior year, for sure.”
For Randolph, Branson Morrison made three saves.
Levandowski said his team has struggled at times with finishing chances this season, but credited Caldwell in this instance.
“We had a ton of quality chances tonight and we just couldn't put the ball away, which is a credit to the goalkeeper,” he said. “He made some fantastic saves positionally, got us to split the ball wide on a couple. Matt does a great job with his kids every year. You know they're going to show up and play super-hard. A lot of our guys and a lot of the Ellicottville kids, they play club together, so there's that familiarity between the two. We knew it was going to be tight, and I think we're lucky to get away with that one, actually.”
Randolph (12-6) is set for a championship rematch with rival Maple Grove on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Eden after the Red Dragons beat Westfield-Brocton 3-2 in the semifinals.
Levandowski said the most difficult part of returning to the finals was the “weight” of being defending champions.
“I think that really weighs on their minds, they feel that pressure and you can see it,” he said. “Even (against) Holland the other day, they started out tight. When you're real tight, you're not breathing right, you're not running the way you should be. I think this was a big step for us, get that weight off our shoulders, get back in that title game on Friday night and give ourselves a chance. We got all the breaks last year, I mean every break, it was unreal. So this group has something to prove, I think. They need to prove that last year was for real and that's what we can do.”
Evans and Steward raised their team-leading goal totals to 19 and 17, respectively.
“Marcus got cramps late, but in the first half when we were rolling there, they were looking sharp,” Levandowski said. “They were getting that ball out wide, Marcus was dangerous and Kaleb's Kaleb. He's got that thing, he's got that 'it' factor that you look for in a coach, that when it comes down to it at the end, I want the ball on his foot because I know he's going to do what it takes to win the game.”