Boyd County’s soccer players, coaches and fans finally experienced pure joy.
It just came a year later than expected.
With a light rain falling and the clock ticking down Wednesday night at Russell Soccer Complex, defender Matt Blakeley scored from 20 yards out off a corner kick to lift the Lions past top-seeded Ashland, 2-1, in the 63rd District championship game.
The program’s first district title came on the heels of a disappointing finish in 2012, when consensus favorite Boyd County came up short in both the district and 16th Region finals.
Several key players graduated, and it seemed the Lions’ window of opportunity may have closed.
That’s what made Wednesday’s victory all the sweeter for coach William Ferguson and his players.
“It’s amazing, just an amazing feeling to be able to come alive at this point in the year and bring it like we have,” said Ferguson, whose team knocked off Russell and Ashland in a span of three nights to avenge 5-3 and 4-1 losses from last month. “We pulled it out this time.”
The Lions did it with juniors Blakeley and Garrett Burton each putting the ball in the net for the first time this season. Standout senior Jonah Black assisted on both.
With the score tied 1-1, Blakeley scored with 2:37 on the clock off Black’s hard, skipping corner kick away from the traffic around the goal.
“I just put it across the field,” Black said. “I saw Matt out of the corner of my eye. He was by himself. I was thinking I’ve got to give him a chance, and he capitalized.”
Blakeley met the pass and sent a low, rolling shot past goalkeeper Kyle Conley, who appeared to be at least partially screened on the play.
Said Ferguson: “Blakeley was in the right place at the right time. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
As a defender, Blakeley doesn’t get many scoring opportunities.
“When I do, I usually shoot it over the goal or shank it. The feeling still hasn’t sunk in that I scored the game-winning goal,” Blakeley said after the Lions carried the championship trophy to the bleachers to celebrate with their fans. “It’s amazing knowing I had a big part in our first district title.”
Blakeley called it a team effort, adding that he was especially happy for Black.
“Jonah wanted this most of anybody,” Blakeley said. “I’ve never seen anybody want it more.”
“I wanted it bad, so bad,” said last year’s All-Area Player of the Year. “Everybody doubted us this season. It fueled us big time.”
Earlier in the second half, Black set up the game’s first goal by slipping a pass to Burton. The first-year starter lofted a pass that dropped below the crossbar and just over the outstretched arms of Conley, who had backpedaled to try to get in position.
“I saw he was out of the goal,” Burton said. “I wanted to go to the bottom corner instead of the top, but when I went to kick the ball the ground was slick and ball ended up going up top.”
Overall, Boyd County kept Ashland in check by clogging the middle of the field.
“Ashland is a good at passing the ball in the middle,” Ferguson said. “We had to tighten it up. We completely changed our formation, and brought the grit out of these kids. They played a good, physical game.”
Boyd County (7-7-2) and Ashland (12-8-2) both move on to the region tournament next week at Fleming County.
The Tomcats got a tying goal from Mackenzie Malloy with 14:49 remaining. Malloy whipped his leg around and connected with the ball in midair to score from 15 yards out.
Ashland had a chance to go ahead with just under eight minutes left, but Daniel Pina’s header landed from close range landed on top of the goal.
“We played hard,” Tomcats coach Kenny Wheeler said. “We just didn’t play our game and let Boyd County play their game.”
Wheeler praised the play of defenders Alex Donalson and Dylan Rankin, along with Jake Day and Robert Wesley.
“Not winning is a bummer, but the good thing is we have another chance,” Wheeler said. “Hopefully we can see them again in the region final.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2671.