PASADENA — In the Maryland Class 1A semifinals a season ago, Mountain Ridge head coach Tim Nightengale’s squad came up just short.
The Miners were humbled in a 5-0 beating at the hands of Patterson Mill, but at the same stage this time around — something felt different.
Behind an exceptional effort from goalkeeper Eathan Ashenfelter, timely goals and superior conditioning, Mountain Ridge was instead on the side that pulled away down the stretch in this year’s state semifinals. And the Miners (14-2) advanced to their first state championship since 2011 with a 3-0 victory over Crisfield (12-4-1).
“This year’s team set a goal that we wanted to get back to this point,” Nightengale said. “I said, ‘don’t be satisfied just getting there, be hungry to get to the next step.’”
“And they were hungry this week.”
Early on, Crisfield was the better side.
Crabbers’ forward Jakhi Maddox found some space at the top of the box, and his slicing shot appeared destined for the top left corner of the goal. But Ashenfelter denied the senior with a diving stop to keep the opening half scoreless.
“(Forward Brady) Weimer is always telling me not to suck,” Ashenfelter said, drawing laughs from his teammates, “so I just took his word and tried not to suck.”
The sophomore stopper has been plagued by some growing pains throughout the season, but Ashenfelter played like an upperclassman on the biggest stage of his young career.
“He’s gained so much confidence,” Nightengale said. “He owned the box today and did an amazing job back there for us.”
Crisfield’s attack relied heavily on counterattacking, and early on, the Crabbers were connecting on through balls like the one Maddox nearly scored on.
Mountain Ridge made the adjustment.
“We just kept pressuring them, they were getting weak and tired of kicking the ball,” Weimer said. “They got tired of playing possession ball.”
After settling in on one end of the field, the Miners’ offense benefited from some good fortune.
Mountain Ridge tried to slot a long vertical feed past the Crabbers’ backline, but the attempt found the foot of defender Stephen Evans. He shanked the would-be clearance, however, and the ball floated perfectly by Crisfield goalkeeper Simon Evans for an own goal, prompting a raucous reaction from the Mountain Ridge faithful who made the more than 150-mile trek from Frostburg.
With the opening score out of the way, the Miners’ confidence grew exponentially.
“Scoring like that, it deflated Crisfield and it elevated us,” Nightengale said. “And we just kept building from there.”
After a series of chances for Mountain Ridge, a well-placed through ball finally found midfielder Logan Kiddy in the middle of the box, and the junior made the most of the chance. He beat Evans for his seventh score of the year, and the squad raced into the half with a 2-0 edge.
“We just kept the pressure on the defense so they couldn’t get the ball and score,” Kiddy said.
After the break, the Miners did just that. They looked like the better conditioned side, dominating ball control to the final whistle.
“Conditioning is so key,” Nightengale said. “Kids hate it when we make them run, but it’s times like these — when two teams that are even play together, conditioning plays a part. And it was a big part today. We were stronger at the end.”
The team from Frostburg put the game away for good when forward Jacob Ritchie iced the game with his team-leading 15th score of the campaign with 17 minutes remaining off of an assist from Mason Reed.
“We had a great week of practice,” Nightengale said. “They don’t get amped up, they don’t get too excited. They just came and played.”
With the victory, Mountain Ridge will face Francis Scott Key for the state championship with a third state title, its first since 2011, on the line. The day — Thursday, Friday or Saturday — and time have yet to be announced
“Let’s get a ring,” Weimer said. “Let’s rage.”