It’s not that the Albemarle boys soccer team looked uncomfortable in the first half — it’s just that it looked so comfortable in the second half that it was alarming. It’s not that what the Patriots did to Briar Woods was easy. It’s just that it looked that way.
It appears that Albemarle might have saved its best stuff for last. With a 4-1 win over the Falcons that was only close until the scoreless tie was broken late in the first, the Patriots advanced to their fourth Class 5A championship showing since 2012.
“They knocked us out of the (Region 5A North) playoffs last year so it does feel good,” said Albemarle coach Zach Laird. “I’m just so proud of this group. We’ve got a great group of seniors and they’ve led us so far. I have no doubts that they’ll do the same tomorrow.”
Briar Woods was able to get a pair of corners and headers thrown Albemarle’s way early, but the Patriots defense and keeper Thomas Leckrone were able to set the tone early. With the Falcons looked to have an early edge possession wise, slowly but surely the tides turned, and substantially. After shots from Daniel Starr and Mohamed Abajar just missed, Abajar found Brandon Mahon — one the of the heroes from Monday’s quarterfinal with Wakefield — who uncorked a laser from deep on the left sideline with just under five minutes until the break to put Albemarle up 1-0.
“I think we just got our confidence back right there,” Mahon said. “On Monday we didn’t play with the fire power we normally have. We got it back though. (Briar Woods) pressured us early but once we broke through it really just opened things up on the offensive side. It showed on the scoreboard.”
Everything was different after that — an avalanche of offense came from the Patriots. Eight minutes into the second, Starr broke loose past three Briar Woods defenders off a pass from Weber and finished cleanly to make it 2-0.
“It was a really hot day so early on it was just hard to keep the energy level high,” Starr said. “We just kept our heads together, stayed positive and it worked out.”
With 21:36 left, the Patriots delivered the true death knell of the game. After more than a handful of chances eluded him earlier, Abajar, another hero from Monday, came up with a goal right in front of the net to make it 3-0.
Just for good measure, Starr assisted junior Jeffery Collins to a breakaway goal with just under seven minutes to play. The Falcons were able to add a penalty kick from Matthew Dennan just moments later, but by then the clock was the enemy and Albemarle was able to wrap up the win with little difficulty.
“Once you get that first goal you’ve just got to keep fighting and fighting until you put the other team away,” Collins said. “It’s what Coach keeps saying.”
Albemarle will face Deep Run in the state title game. Just prior to the Patriots and Falcons game, the Wildcats took down Mills Godwin 3-2 in double overtime in a game that featured a trio of red cards. Albemarle beat Colonial Forge in 2012 to win the program’s first state championship. In 2014, the Patriots took a young team the state title game, falling to Broad Run. The core of that group came back in 2016 and won the programs second state championship with some help from a few underclassmen like Weber.
“We’re at the now with this program where we’re thinking every year we’re going to be right there in the mix,” Laird said. “That’s the standard that these seniors have set up.”
Now those formerly young role players are getting an opportunity to write their own chapter as team leaders in what’s become the modern rich tradition of state championship level soccer for Albemarle. For a team that was just minutes away from being eliminated on Monday, the momentum swing from the end of the second half with Wakefield clearly carried over into Friday. Now the question will be can it continue through Saturday.
“Momentum is such a huge thing in soccer and it can swing to both sides so quickly,” Weber said. “We just have to make sure that when Deep Run has it, we don’t get scored on. We have to make sure when have it, we score. They’re a good team with a lot of strong tall defenders. We just have to find a way to break that down.”
The Patriots and Wildcats will play at 12:30 p.m. today at Glen Allen High. And with no shortage of state playoff experience, Albemarle saved its energy with a minimalist celebration, electing to spend most of its energy stretching and cooling down afterwards in exercises led by Leckrone.
“You get to celebrate a little today, but really, we’re just getting ready for tomorrow,” Weber said. “Tomorrow is what it’s all about.”