Chances are, Washington-Lee goalie Benjamin English wasn’t even a footnote in Grassfield’s game plan entering Saturday’s Virginia 6A boys’ soccer state semifinal.
The senior had missed the postseason recovering from a shoulder injury, and with sophomore sensation Maycol Nunez sidelined after drawing a red card in the previous game, the thought was that the Generals’ arsenal had been depleted.
That notion sat well with English, whose newfound health and hunger to get back on the field led the Generals to a defense-fueled, 1-0 victory against Grassfield at Robinson High in Fairfax. With the victory, the Generals advanced to Sunday’s state final against T.C. Williams, which beat Hylton, 6-2, in the other semifinal and is the only team to beat the Washington-Lee this season in last week’s 6A North region final.
“Coach said he knew this could be our last game, so he wanted to give me as a senior, the chance to come back and keep our season alive,” said English, who finished with 10 saves. “We didn’t know much about Grassfield except that they were strong and fast and that usually means a team likes to kick the ball ahead and get out on the run, so I had to be ready.”
English’s teammates helped his cause by striking first on offense. Fellow senior Derryck Aquice rocketed a shot from the middle into the net to put the Generals (18-1-4) ahead 1-0 in the 21st minute.
The Grizzlies nearly responded six minutes later when a hard shot slammed off the crossbar and up for grabs until English soared high to knock it out of bounds.
As the game wore on, Grassfield’s shots grew more daunting for English, but the senior could not be beaten. A Grizzlies forward broke through the Generals’ defense for an open look at the goal, only to have English reach his left hand just low and wide enough for the deflection. And in the 75th minute, with a wall of players blocking his view, English snatched a shot off a free kick out of the air to secure the Generals’ first trip to the state final in at least five decades.
Up until that point, the 75th minute of the contest, Williamson had been a blur, using his blistering speed to get behind the Bulldogs and in position for easy goals. But even as one defender charged his way, followed by another who attempted to face him up, an improvising Williamson still proved to be one step ahead of the opposition. After chipping a self-pass over one player, the junior cut back to the middle with a quick dribble move that created room for his third goal of the night, sealing the Titans’ first state final appearance in more than a decade.
“They were playing a high line on defense, so it was tricky at times making sure I stayed onside while trying to make my run for the ball on long passes,” Williamson said.
Two of those long passes led to Hylton fouls in the box and the ejection of its starting goalie after he drew a red card. Titans forward Wilson Miezan Akable converted both penalty kicks to build a 2-0 lead before Hylton scored in the 23rd minute on its own penalty kick.
A Jack Nelson goal off of a Freddy Isleno corner kick pulled Hylton to 3-2 in the opening minute of the second half, but Williamson and Kevin Ortez connected on three consecutive breakaway scores to lead the Titans (18-2) to their sixth straight win.