Richmond’s Ben Gardner, left, collides with Bangor Christian goalie Jeremiah McNally durig the Class D state championship game Saturday at Hampden Academy. (Kevin Bennett, for the Kennebec Journal)
HAMPDEN — The tears were still welled up in Richmond High School forward Zach Small’s eyes when he said the words no athlete wants to say after the last game of a season, particularly one as successful as the Richmond boys soccer team’s.
“It just wasn’t meant to be,” he said.
It was difficult to argue with him, particularly after Richmond had generated chance after chance in its Class D state championship matchup, peppering its Bangor Christian opponent and keeper Austin Keib with one shot on goal after another.
The Bobcats just needed a break. They never got one. Bangor Christian did, getting a goal off a header from Tyler Lehman, and it was the only one the Patriots needed for a 1-0 victory at Hampden Academy on Saturday, and their second straight D title and seventh in the last nine years.
“It is very emotional,” senior forward Matt Rines said. “Our entire team worked really hard, we came a long way. I’m disappointed that we came out on the wrong end, but I’m nothing but thankful and proud to be with this amazing group of teammates.”
There were emotions on both sides, though Bangor Christian’s was rooted in vengeance. The Patriots’ trophy case is extensive, but they still think of the one that got away — a 3-0 loss to Richmond in 2014, when their seniors were in their freshman years.
Three years later, the favor has been returned.
“The guys really wanted to play Richmond,” Patriots (16-2) coach Aaron Wilcox said. “They’ve been talking about this for a while. They really, really wanted this.”
The Patriots made the task easier for themselves by striking first. The teams took turns in each other’s end in the opening minutes, and in the 12th, Erik Gorczok sent a cross over to the front of the Richmond (16-2) net. Keeper Trystin Shea got caught up in the traffic in front while going for the ball, and Lehman was in position to head it into the net for the 1-0 lead.
“It felt great. It’s a life-changing experience, definitely,” Lehman said. “It was a team effort. It wasn’t just on me. I was just lucky enough to put the final goal in.”
Bangor Christian continued to generate pressure the rest of the half, but in the second, Richmond took over. The pace began to more closely resemble that of a hockey game’s as Richmond sent one through ball and long pass after another through or over the Patriots defense, relying on the speed of Small, Rines, Nick Adams and Andrew Vachon to chase them in the Bangor Christian end.
“I thought probably it would be like that,” Richmond coach Peter Gardner said. “We decided, you know what? We’ve worked our tail off. Let’s just go out and play and attack. Attack, attack, attack and see what happens, instead of sitting back and playing defense.”
It seemed like a matter of time before the approach would pay off. Richmond put six shots on goal and generated three of its four corners in the second half, and the chances looked good. Small had a shot from 20 yards out get snagged by Keib (nine saves) in the 44th minute, and then had a ball sail just wide right from 25 out in the 47th. Nate Kendrick had a shot from over 30 yards out in the 45th minute get stopped and covered up by Keib before Vachon could finish it off, and Vachon then had a try from the back of the box go right into Keib’s arms in the 52nd.
Somehow, nothing got through.
“We had three or four chances where the goal was wide open,” Small said, “and we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
“I’m very surprised we didn’t put one in,” Rines added. “Luck just wasn’t on our side today. We just couldn’t put it in the net.”
Richmond’s best chance came in the 75th minute. Kendrick had a shot from the back of the box get deflected by Keib, sending the ball into the air and prompting Bobcats and Patriots alike to gather underneath it. Rines won the battle and tried to head it into the net, only for the try to veer just wide left.
“I crashed the goal, knowing he was probably going to let a rebound up,” said Rines, who also sent a header off a cross from Kendrick high in the final minute. “I just tried to put it back over him, but it just went too wide and our guy couldn’t get to it. It is what it is.”
The two plays were a final gasp for Richmond, which came as a relief to Wilcox on the other sideline.
“To keep it that close, that was crazy,” he said. “That was our third game in a row in the playoffs 1-0, and I’ve had enough.”
It was a bitter ending for Richmond’s 10 seniors, who overcame key graduations to keep the Bobcats atop the D South power structure.
“We didn’t think we were ever going to be in this spot again,” Small said. “No one thought we were going to be here.”
Small knew where to give credit for Richmond’s success, however. And it’s why he thinks the Bobcats will survive this wave of departures as well.
“We didn’t believe in ourselves, and it takes a special coach like Coach Gardner to get a group of kids and get them to believe in themselves,” he said. “Best coach in Maine, in my opinion.”