NORTH EAST – On an evening celebrating North East’s seniors – chocked full of pre-game festivities, teary-eyed parents and signs of support strewn throughout the bleachers – the Indians’ quartet of veterans made sure to deliver a performance fit for its own special day.
Entering last Tuesday’s grudge match with North East (4-4-1), the Perryville Panthers (7-1-1) hadn’t lost a game all season, its closest test coming in its previous clash with Joppatowne on Oct. 6, which ended in a 1-1 stalemate.
But, with their senior leadership and tenacious attitude leading the way, the Indians capitalized on opportunities to score early and often while producing a clean sheet in the process. And when the dust settled, North East had officially knocked off Perryville, 3-0, to mark the Indians’ fourth-straight win over the Panthers, a streak dating back to the 2018 season.
“We’ve lost some early goals this season, so I’m very happy to see the quick change,” said David Hamilton, the Indians’ head coach. “It was a good start. And we kept it up, actually, throughout the game, so I’m, overall, impressed with the performance.”
It didn’t take long for North East’s seniors to make an impact.
Less than four minutes into the game, a free kick opportunity for the Indians went awry when Panthers goalkeeper Finnegan Tome came up with a save, but the ball collided with his hands and fell into a messy scrum of blue and white jerseys.
After kicking the ball around for what felt like an eternity, North East senior Darwin Berger found a hole and pounded the ball into the back of the net for a 1-0 Indians lead.
Berger’s go-ahead goal was a sign of things to come for the Panthers, who were terrorized by Berger’s physicality all night long.
“They’re a physical team,” said Chris Tome, the Panthers’ head coach, of his opponents. “They’re tough, man, they’re tough. They battle. I love their tenacity. Darwin Berger, if he’s not on the field, it’s a completely different game.”
In fact, as much as North East’s success stemmed from smart offensive soccer – often making smart passes, taking the right shots and maintaining control with outstanding footwork – the Indians’ refusal to shy away from contact was crucial in the upset victory.
The Indians pushed, bumped and tackled their way to a clean sheet against the Panthers, controlling their own penalty box to allow eight shots on goal, most of which were routine saves by goalkeeper Gavin Hawley.
“Their overall attitude, every game we play, it’s very physical,” Hamilton said. “We battle hard, we work hard. It’s just a desire to do well. … It’s just how I want them to play and how they deserve to play every night. They show it in practice and they did it tonight.”
North East was actually forced to play shorthanded for most of the match after a red card was awarded to sophomore Riley Zimmerman in the 29th minute on a physical takedown in Indians’ territory, meaning they had to play with 10 players – instead of the usual 11 – for the remaining 51 minutes of game time.
But, the Indians’ shorthanded status came while they were nursing a 2-0 lead, the second goal of which was scored by senior Corey O’Connell in just the 8th minute, a mere four minutes after Berger’s first-blood score.
O’Connell received a pass about 25 yards away from the goal and took advantage of his track-and-field speed, bolting past the few Panthers defenders in his way just before slotting a powerful shot to the left corner of the net, which Finnegan Tome had no chance of stopping.
While Berger and O’Connell were the lone seniors to score goals in the Indians’ win, that doesn’t mean they were the only ones that were crucial to the team’s success, with Hamilton going as far as to select another – Bryan Millard – as the team’s Player of the Match.
“Bryan Millard, who actually got our ‘Player of the Match’ tonight, our senior, he’s just come back off of a back injury and has been out for four games,” Hamilton said. “He was phenomenal tonight, just didn’t let anything past him.”
In the second half, North East started things off almost identically to the way it began the game, scoring about four minutes into the half on a rebound goal from sophomore James Ayers that gave the Indians a 3-0 lead with about 36 minutes to play.
From there, it was all about maintaining the big lead.
While Perryville had a few opportunities down the stretch – including a header off of a corner kick that smacked the crossbar before ultimately being kicked away in the 71st minute – the Panthers failed to find the net for the first time all season.
“They weren’t letting us get in the box,” said Chris Tome on his team’s struggles. “They were forcing us to take shots from afar, so when you’re trying to hit balls through traffic from a distance, it’s difficult. Ironically, we worked on it all week, too, because we have been having teams pack the box, parking the bus on us, and we just can’t get goal-scoring opportunities.”
While the Panthers suffering their first loss of the season wasn’t the ideal result for Chris Tome, he said that he’d rather lose to North East – a team with a bunch of players he’s coached in club soccer before – than just about anyone else.
“I don’t mind losing to those guys because there’s six of them that were on my club team,” he said. “And there’s 12 of them that I’ve coached before because they’re all intertwined in Cecil. So, if we’re going to lose to somebody, I don’t mind losing to North East because it’s a bunch of kids I love.”
North East aims to keep its winning streak alive when it hosts Edgewood (1-8) this Tuesday, while Perryville will look to bounce back on a visit to Rising Sun (6-3).