RFA BOYS WIN BATTLE OF BLACK KNIGHTS-SOCCER PLAYOFFS UNDERWAY
RFA Black Knights have plenty to celebrate on a rainy night in Rome!
Photos-Jeff Pexton-MHTS/PGI Photo
ROME – Rome Free Academy’s 2-1 victory over Henninger during Tuesday night’s Section III Class AA boys first-round soccer game had a little of everything.
It featured scintillating back-and-forth action, incredible individual efforts … and a controversial finish.
Senior forward Jake Pohl scored two beautiful second-half goals to lead the Black Knights to a 2-1 lead. The controversy came in the final moments as RFA defenders inexplicably kept the ball in play instead of clearing it into the stands and running off the game’s final 10 seconds.
Henninger was able to gain possession at midfield and quickly create a final, desperate charge. They quickly moved it from midfield into RFA’s zone, and with less than five seconds remaining, the ball caromed to the right wing to Nico Saralequi, who quickly sent a shot from 20 yards that cleared over RFA goalkeeper Spencer Kahler and into the left corner of the net.
One official waived off the goal, while the other gestured it was good. With Henninger players celebrating the amazing turn of events, and gearing up for the upcoming overtime, the referees met at midfield to make a ruling. After about 30 seconds, they decided the ball crossed the line after the buzzer and the game was over.
As expected, Henninger’s coaches and players were extremely upset with the ruling, but handled it about as well as could be expected as the referees immediately left the field.
“I just thought by the reaction of both the RFA kids and my team, that they all thought it was a good goal,” said Henninger head coach Scott Fiello. “My point is that if it’s that close and you don’t know or aren’t sure of the call, that you have to call it a goal because then both teams still have a chance in overtime. The way they called it decided the game, and that shouldn’t happen. It’s a tough way to end the season, and what makes it even tougher, is how much I loved this group of kids.”
RFA coach Chad Reese thought it was the right call, but also realized it is a very tough call and way to lose a game.
“I probably would feel the same way that they did,” Reese said. “I thought the entire Henninger team handled it very well. I give them a lot of credit, the way the coaches and players reacted in a positive manner to a tough situation.”
With the victory, eighth-seeded RFA (11-5-1) advances to play Thursday night at top-seeded Liverpool (13-2-1) in a Class AA quarterfinal. Henninger, the ninth-seed, had its season end with a 7-8 mark.
The worst thing about such a controversial finish, was that it somewhat overshadowed an otherwise terrific, hard-fought game, as well as a big-time performance by Pohl, who showed why he was RFA’s leading scorer in the regular season.
After a scoreless first half, where both teams tried to impose their style of play over the other, Henninger struck first just three minutes into the final 40 minutes.
Speedy striker Khin Maung Kyi – who led Henninger with 16 goals and 25 points this season – beat the RFA defense to the ball along the left sideline.
He quickly turned and centered a pass that was misplayed by the RFA defense and deflected past RFA keeper Spencer Kahler. Henninger’s Jabari Gaiter raced to the ball and shelved it just underneath the crossbar for a 1-0 Henninger lead.
Three minutes later, Henninger nearly took a 2-0 advantage as Kyi used his incredible quickness and ball handling to weave through and past the RFA defense and slid a shot past Kahler, but RFA defense Kyle Baker hustled and cleared the ball just wide of the post as it was heading into the left corner.
“I told the team that #17 (Kyi) and #9 (Gaiter) were the two players that could really hurt us and that’s what happened,” Reese said.
Baker’s play seemed to spark RFA, as the home team controlled much of the play during the final 30 minutes. After several attempts to knot the score were thwarted by Henninger’s defense, including a few saves by goalie Jonny Larca, RFA finally struck.
Henninger’s strength as a team is getting the ball to its speedy strikers Kyi, Gaiter and Joe Marino. They tried all night to send through balls to them or by chipping long passes over RFA’s defense. One problem with that is most of the time it ended up too far and to Kahler, who has a powerful leg.
With 21 minutes remaining Kahler crushed a punt to 35 yards out and Pohl raced past the Henninger defense and snuck a shot past Larca, off the right post and into the net to knot the game.
“Their goalie has a big punt and I told our team to be ready for it, but he still got one over our heads and they made it count,” said Fiello.
The assist was a huge thrill for Kahler.
“This was my first assist this year,” Kahler said. “It feels really good to win because it has been a long-term goal to have a home game in sectionals, and to win. We are very excited to move on.”
In the next five minutes of action, both teams had a chance or two to break the tie, but neither was able to capitalize until Pohl struck again with a beautiful goal off a set play with 13:53 remaining.
Freshman Jarrod Smaldon’s throw-in was headed backward by Michael Mellace to Pohl, who took it off one bounce and hammered a side-kick at about chest height from about 12 yards into the left corner of the goal, just out of the reach of a vertically outstretched Larca.
“The first goal was pure hustle,” Reese said of Pohl’s determination. “The second one was just a great finish.”
For Pohl it was a surreal experience and a great performance by a senior who earned his first sectional victory.
“This was the biggest game of my life so far,” said Pohl, who had 10 goals during the regular season. “Right now, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s always been a dream of mine to come up big and make big plays to win a game like this.”
Pohl was especially pleased with his second goal.
“That’s one that you just try to hit and hope it goes in, but I really hit that one perfectly.”
After gaining the lead, RFA looked great in protecting it all the way up to the final 25 seconds. They consistently carried play and forward Acelle Rando deftly was able to kill the clock by keeping the ball in the corner deep in Henninger’s defensive zone, while also forcing repeated throw-ins as well as a couple corner kicks.
Henninger barely was able to get the ball out of their end for the final four minutes, until the final 30 seconds.
Now RFA turns its focus to Thursday’s clash with top-seeded Liverpool.
“I’m excited,” Reese said. “There’s a lot of parity in Class AA this season. Liverpool is a great team, but it’s a year where we could make a run if we play the way we’re capable.”
RFA 2, Henninger 1
Henninger (7-8): Jabari Gaiter 1-0. Jonny Larca 3 saves.
RFA (11-5-1): Jake Pohl 2-0, Michael Mellace 0-1, Spencer Kahler 0-1. Kahler 6 saves.