For nearly 70 minutes of action Thursday, the underdog outplayed the favorite.
But an early goal from Wichita Falls Rider’s Hamilton Howard off of a corner kick proved to be the difference in a Class 4A area-round playoff game as the defending state finalist Raiders topped Guyer 1-0 to advance to the sectional round of the playoffs and end the Wildcats’ season.
“There’s never a good loss,” Guyer head coach Cody Schroeder said. “You never say there’s a good loss, but you can say you gave your effort and you asked the young men to step up and respond, and they did that. They played with great courage and effort in the second half especially. It’s a bit unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes. Someone has to lose.”
From the moment Guyer stepped on the field, Schroeder said his team was possibly intimidated by the Raiders’ mystique and tradition, as well as the prospect of facing striker Christian Okeke, an SMU signee who is the tradition-rich program’s all-time leading goal scorer. Rider defeated Guyer 3-0 earlier this season.
But after that first Rider goal, off an assist from Okeke, Schroeder said his team changed its mindset, although it ended up being too late.
“I think we were a little shell-shocked in that game [earlier in the season] and it might have had a lingering effect,” Schroeder said. “I think after the first 13 or 14 minutes we settled in and started creating opportunities.”
After the Raiders (20-5-2) scored in the 14th minute, the tone and flow of the game seemed to completely swing in the favor of Guyer (12-9-5).
After being outshot 4-1 in the first half, Guyer came back to outshoot the Raiders 4-0 in the second half and had several other opportunities where a shot went just wide of the goal or Rider goalkeeper Corbin Dotson came out to cut off a scoring opportunity.
The Wildcats had two solid chances to even the game in the final 20 minutes of the first half after Jake Manley took a pass from McKenna Cook about 10 yards from the Rider goal.
Manley’s shot was stopped by Rider’s keeper but not corralled and the rebound was cleared by a Rider defender.
The Wildcats threatened late in the first half and earned a free kick from about 25 yards out, but Sean Diamond’s shot was deflected by the Raiders’ wall.
But the second half, and specifically the final 12 minutes of the game, saw Rider withstand one attack after another from Guyer and still come out victorious.
In that final stretch, Guyer had six solid scoring chances as the game reached a frantic pace that had a bit of desperation from the Wildcats, and it almost paid off several times.
With about eight minutes remaining, a scrum in front of the Raiders’ net was eventually turned away when Dotson punched the ball clear, but that led to a Guyer corner. That serving pass cleared through the penalty area and skipped across an open net before a Rider defender cleared the ball.
Minutes later, a Guyer goal kick bounced over a Rider defender just past midfield and just in front of Cook, who took the ball off the bounce and shot it from 40 yards out but off-line of the goal in an attempt to get it over Dotson’s head.
“That’s what’s great about high school soccer — the spirit of it,” Schroeder said. “A game like that in the end, you’re in and battling and giving yourself chances. We were a little desperate and maybe if we settle down a bit there in the end, a couple of those chances might go in for us.
“I think we responded in the second half especially, and we’re very proud of their effort tonight.”
One reason Guyer was able to better handle Rider than the first time the teams met was their plan to slow Okeke, a strong, speedy forward up top with immense skill.
He was held to just two shots on goal as several others were deflected by defenders before they were a threat to goalkeeper Carlos Enrique.
“Outside of the assist on the corner kick, I thought Cole Christian and the whole back line did a great job of being aware of him [Okeke] and eliminating those opportunities for him to run at us,” Schroeder said. “He had a couple of chances at the end, but for the most part we isolated him and played him really well.”
Schroeder coached eight seniors for the final time, including two of his top players in Cook and Diamond, who have been on varsity through good times and bad for the Guyer program, including a two-year stint in Class 5A without a playoff victory.
“I think a lot of them came in skeptical of what the ability of this team was,” Schroeder said of his senior class. “We asked them to remain patient with the coaching staff until we got everyone in line. We had a lot of ups and downs, especially in the middle part of this season, but we felt our district play was good. Even the games we lost or tied, we felt we played well.”