PENN LAIRD — As the Harrisonburg players ripped off their jerseys, settled on the bench and took in the subdued celebration taking place in front of them, Blue Streaks coach Paul Rath directed his team to begin gathering items and heading to the bus.
Despite clinching the Valley District’s regular season championship on Tuesday by playing to a 1-1 draw against Spotswood in Penn Laird, Harrisonburg wasn’t ready to celebrate.
“We’ve been working on the consistency of our play all year,” Rath said. “We didn’t have that tonight. We’re hoping to maintain more consistency and kind of move up on an arc with our consistency. We haven’t done that over the last week or so. This game showed us that our last game against Rockbridge [County] and our practices heading into [Region 5D] play are really important.”
The Streaks are the only Class 5 school in the Valley District and won’t participate in the district tournament next week, but there had been anticipation building toward Tuesday’s match since Harrisonburg edged the Trailblazers 2-1 in a spirited match on April 11 at HHS.
In that game, both coaches expressed frustration with how the game was handled by the officials as Streaks junior Lucio Bianchi was ejected with a red card and Spotswood sophomore Conner Amberg left the game with an undisclosed injury.
On Tuesday, the coaches said the game was handled well despite the natural chippiness of the rivalry showing at times.
“I think the calls were necessary,” SHS coach Dan Atwell said. “In a game of this level and this intensity and pace, the refs did an excellent job. That allowed both teams to settle down and play the way they wanted to.”
Both sets of bleachers were spirited with fans offering advice to officials, encouragement for players and noise at times to distract the opposing team.
It was the type of game Harrisonburg senior Micah Yutzy said he loves to play in.
“There’s obviously a lot of anger and nerves and pure rivalry feelings going into it,” Yutzy said. “It’s one of the most fun games you can play. This is probably the best team we play.”
The back-and-forth action began early with the teams exchanging trash talk as officials kept the game in hand with several calls that slowed the pace at times.
Spotswood was in control most of the first half in terms of possession before Yutzy was awarded a penalty kick with 4:07 remaining before half and converted to give the Streaks a 1-0 lead.
“Coming into it, I decided right away that I was going left,” Yutzy said. “I wasn’t going to rethink my decision. I was like, ‘I’m going left, putting it low and doing what I do.’ Everybody was calling me and stuff. I just had to prove it for myself and for my team and I put it away.”
The Trailblazers didn’t flinch, however, and continued to control possession in the second half, but missed out on several scoring opportunities.
“We definitely possessed the way we wanted to and created the opportunities we wanted to,” Atwell said. “Playing this level of a team is good for us as we move into districts and regionals because it gets us to that work rate we have to get to. You could see that today. The boys were excited about playing.”
With 32:11 remaining in the game, however, speedy sophomore Viktor Maroz scored off a beautiful header into the right side of the net to even things up for Spotswood at 1-1.
It set the tone for a raucous final 40 minutes of soccer.
“During the season, we don’t play as many tough teams,” Maroz said. “So when we get to them, we’re prepared but not as much as we should be. I think that that had an effect on our game. They’re a good overall team.
“We were getting hyped. We’re focused on one thing right now and that’s winning a state ring for the seniors. This game was like a state final. We went in it and played well as a team, but just couldn’t pull it out in the end.”
Despite playing without five starters, the SHS players said they felt like they missed an opportunity to avenge a loss from earlier this season.
“I felt like we had the game in our hands, but we just missed some chances,” Maroz said. “It came down to that at the end of the day.”
Atwell said the game will serve as a good building point moving forward as the Trailblazers (11-2-2, 8-1-2 Valley) prepare for next week’s district tournament, where they will serve as the top seed.
For the Streaks (12-1-2, 10-0-1 Valley), it was also a teaching moment, but one that Rath said he wished would have been a little more positive.
“I don’t understand it,” Rath said. “When we get to Spotswood, we freeze up. They take us out of our game. You’ve got to give them credit for that. You have to go into a game with an unemotional mentality, but we fall apart with Spotswood. We’ve done it for the last several years. They’re doing something right and we haven’t stepped up and answered that challenge.”
Despite Rath’s disappointment, the players eventually stood up and decided to take in the moment and enjoy the importance of the draw with a picture in front of the bench.
There was reason to smile after all, Yutzy said.
“It’s huge for me,” Yutzy said. “As a senior, it just reiterates the fact that we are the best team in the district. We’re No. 1. We’re just doing our best every game.”