PENN LAIRD — Don’t ask Spotswood senior Samuel Aklilu about his feelings in the biggest moment of the night because, according to him, it was unexplainable.
As Fluvanna County’s Emory Davis took a shot off one of the many beautiful throw-ins of the night from teammate Elijah Bullock with just seconds left in the match, the ball hit the crossbar and bounced down leaving Fluco fans thinking they had just evened the game.
“Oh my God,” Aklilu said. “My heart stopped. I was so scared. You don’t understand. I trust my goalie, trust my teammates though and we cleared it out.”
Despite appearing to be a goal to the fans in the stands, the Fluvanna coaches and their players, the official ruled that it never crossed the goal line and the ball was cleared by SHS defenders.
Moments later, the final whistle blew and the Trailblazers held on for a 3-2 win over the Flucos in the Region 3C boys soccer semifinals on Tuesday in Penn Laird.
“They told me it just didn’t go in,” Fluvanna coach Earl Gibson said. “[The official] was in the right spot so I just have to trust him that he made the right call. I know it’s tough at the last second. That’s a game-changer. It just didn’t fall our way.”
The win not only earned Spotswood a spot in Thursday’s Region 3C championship, where it will take on third-seeded Western Albemarle, but also clinched a berth in next week’s Virginia High School League Class 3 tournament — a goal the Trailblazers seniors continuously said throughout the year that they had set at the beginning of the season.
“It means a lot,” SHS coach Dan Atwell said. “These guys were seventh and eighth graders when I first took over the program and we started implementing the culture, implementing a training regimen. These guys have bought the message and they play with a lot of purpose, a lot of passion. We preach that to them every day. We try to train hard and play hard and the results show.”
The game had the intensity of a playoff match with state-tournament implications from the start with each team exchanging scoring punches throughout the first half.
While Aklilu scored twice for the Trailblazers in the opening 40 minutes, it took the Flucos less than six minutes to respond each time with goals from Davis and Brandon Lucas to keep things even at 2 going into half.
“They did have chances, but their chances came off our defensive errors,” Atwell said. “That’s what we talked about at halftime. We just had to be 100 percent committed to defending and let our attackers take care of business at the end of the day.”
For much of the first half, Fluvanna found open scoring opportunities and gave the Spotswood defense fits with its various formations and speed on the edge.
One of the toughest tasks for the Trailblazers was defending the throw-ins from Bullock as they gave the Flucos strong looks right at the goal because of how high they went in the air.
“We knew from the start that their throw-ins and kicks were really good,” Spotswood midfielder Abrey Atwell said. “We adjusted to that in the second half. We knew they could launch the ball so we read it, talked to our keeper. [SHS sophomore goalkeeper Andrew] Foltz came in clutch for us, jumped up and grabbed the ball a few times. That’s really what saved us.”
It was arguably the best game of the season for Foltz, who battled with Edward Bukalov for the starting job at the beginning of the year before winning the full-time job.
As Fluvanna pressed into the SHS defense throughout the first half and fired away shot after shot, Foltz answered each time with saves that prevented the Flucos from opening up a big lead.
“Foltz had a coming-out party for him,” Dan Atwell said. “All season, he’s been ready for this moment. That’s big for us because it gives him that confidence moving into the regional finals and into the state tournament. Early in the season, he was battling for that spot and he earned it.”
In the second half, the scoring opportunities slowed down for Fluvanna and opened for the Trailblazers as they played a more controlled game offensively.
With 31:35 remaining, Aklilu scored his third goal of the contest when he tapped a shot into the right side of the net to give Spotswood a 3-2 lead.
“Honestly, coach took us over to the corner and gave us a game plan and we just executed and that’s all we had to do really,” Aklilu said. “My teammates just set me up and I just had to put the finishing touches on the cake. That’s all I had to do.”
The game plan after that was to buckle down defensively, Aklilu said, and it worked with neither team touching the net the rest of the game and the Flucos’ control of possession decreasing immensely from the first half.
“We made more mistakes,” Gibson said. “Once they got that last goal — they’re a smart organized team — they played more defensively and made it a lot tougher on us. I think we started to panic a little bit towards the middle there because we knew we had to push. Credit to [Spotswood] because they did a great job holding it and getting it done.”
Despite coming in as the No. 4 seed and with a subpar record, Fluvanna (6-9-1) didn’t lack confidence against the Trailblazers (16-2-2).
As a member of the Jefferson District, the Flucos play some of the best teams in the state and as a result, their coaches and players said they’re prepared for this time of the year.
“We definitely play in a harder district,” Fluvanna midfielder Kamden Shephard said. “We weren’t too worried about the [win-loss record] coming in. We knew it was going to come down to the team that made fewer mistakes. They just made one less mistake than we did.”
As for Aklilu, the three-goal performance was a career-high and Dan Atwell said it was the type of display Spotswood will need from the senior if the team hopes to advance moving forward.
“He’s struggled on goal all year,” Atwell said. “He’s been on the front end on so many missed opportunities. He told me tonight, ‘Coach, I could’ve been doing this all year.’ He’s one of those seniors that I looked at at the beginning of the game and said, ‘This is your last home game. Leave the field with nothing.’ He just told me, ‘I got you coach.’”
Aklilu is one of 11 seniors on the Trailblazers roster — a group that is now heading to the state tournament for a third straight season.
On Thursday, they’ll face a familiar foe in Western Albemarle, which beat them in each of the last two regional championship games.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Abrey Atwell said. “It’s just an unexplainable feeling. [Western Albemarle is] really aggressive. Hopefully this game prepared us for that.”
Before they take on the Warriors, however, the Spotswood seniors said they wanted to enjoy their state-tournament-clinching win a little bit longer on Tuesday.
And as Abrey Atwell continued to give credit to Aklilu for “coming through with the headers,” his fellow senior remained at a loss for words.
“Oh my God,” Aklilu said. “I can’t even put it into words. You don’t understand how happy I am. I’m just going to celebrate the rest of the week until we have the regional championship.”