WILSON – For the first time in school history, Southern Nash has won back-to-back Big East Conference Tournament championships.
The No. 2 seed Firebirds overcame injuries to three key players and lived through a handful of dangerous attacks by first-seeded Wilson Hunt, hanging on for a 1-0 victory in the tournament final Thursday at Hunt High School.
With little between the two sides, the point of contention after the game was a controversial penalty kick awarded to Southern Nash, which proved to be the difference between the two teams.
Southern Nash midfielder Moises Gonzalez took a pass from the Firebirds’ defense, beating his mark in the process. Gonzalez carried untouched some 30 yards into the penalty area, where he was dispossessed. The match official said the contact was unfair, leading to a 51st-minute penalty kick, which Gonzalez buried.
“That was tough to see him make that call. It’s a 0-0 game. When it’s that close, that’s an iffy call,” Hunt coach Scott Summers said. “It wasn’t like it was flagrant. I felt like we got the ball first and (Gonzalez) fell after the fact, but you can’t change the call.
“We should (have been) in overtime, if anything.”
Gonzalez, the primary target of Hunt’s defense, had a feeling contact was coming.
“I ran down the right side, and I knew they were going to foul me,” he said. “They were fouling me every single time. ... (The defender) got my foot and the ball at the same time.”
Despite protests from the Warriors, Gonzalez went to the penalty spot, where he hammered a shot to the right of Hunt goalkeeper Andrew Sorrell.
Southern Nash coach Kurt Bienias felt the penalty was deserved, especially after the first two meetings between the teams. Bienias said Gonzalez was the recipient of unfair challenges from the Warriors in the first two meetings, both of which the Warriors won.
“Moises, in the first two games, was constantly getting hacked and hacked and hacked, and (Thursday), I really wanted the referees to know and to watch and protect our players,” Bienias said. “... There may be some that say that was an undeserved PK, but that was an enough’s enough, deserving PK. Moises earned it, and he buried it.”
The game was 0-0 at half, a minor miracle given the run of play that took place in the first 40 minutes. Hunt’s Juan Anguiano sent a dangerous header just wide in the seventh minute, then Cooper Dean had a shot tipped over the bar nine minutes later.
Southern Nash’s Juan Garcia had a point-blank header stopped by Sorrell in the 22nd minute, then Sorrell ranged across the face of the goal to keep out Gonzalez’s header in the 29th. Four minutes later, Hunt’s Jereme Jones beat the Firebirds’ defense but hit the shot over the bar.
“In the first half, Andrew made a ton of saves and really kept us in the game. We talked about it at halftime that we can’t hold on for this long because Southern Nash was knocking on the door,” Summers said. “We had our opportunities, we just got unlucky. We couldn’t finish.”
Southern Nash kept a clean sheet without center back Pablo Mier, the team’s best defender. Mizael Mendoza stepped in his place and played an excellent game.
Bienias elected to stay with four defenders even without Mier, and Bienias said he was proud of how Mendoza played.
“I really wanted to show everybody that I could do it,” Mendoza said. “There was some pressure, but the coaches had confidence in me and I had confidence in myself.”
Gonzalez also was injured for Southern Nash. He played despite an injured calf, and missed only a few minutes at the end of the game.
“He was really hurting,” Bienias said. “Most guys wouldn’t have played.”
Knowing he wasn’t going to be the two-way player he normally is, the Firebirds tried to hide Gonzalez atop their formation.
Hunt, the regular season champion, still will go to the 3-A playoffs as the Big East’s No. 1 seed, but Southern Nash felt the victory gave the team momentum going into the playoffs.
Bienias said he was “out-coached” in the first two meetings, and he made a point not to let it happen again.
“I felt like we were as strong of a team as they were, and they won both games,” Bienias said. “We had a tactical plan, and the kids really bought into it.”
Southern Nash made the regional semifinals last season, and Gonzalez said it can beat that this season.
“This team has a lot of heart,” he said. “We go can far, even farther than we did last year.”
Southern Nash 1
Wilson Hunt 0
Goals: Moises Gonzalez 51’ (pen.).
Shots (On Target): WH: 17 (5). SN: 14 (8).
Saves: Andrew Sorrell (WH) - 7; Will Lilles (SN) - 5.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org