STOVER — For the first time in eight years, luck was on Smithton’s side.
The Tigers advanced to the Kaysinger Conference Soccer Tournament for the first time since 2011 on Wednesday with help from a goal from freshman Braedon Cairer and a tie-breaking coin toss.
Before the toss, Stover activities director Tony Pace assigned "heads" to Cole Camp and "tails" to Smithton. Falling silently into the grass outside the Stover Dome, tails was an anti-climactic call to a hard-fought contest between teams sharing a conference rivalry.
Both teams defeated La Monte 9-1 in previous pool play matches. According to MSHSAA’s Soccer Manual, overtime is optional in regular season tournament pool play “where no advancement from an established bracket is necessary.”
Tied in point differential, goals allowed and goals scored, the result was decided by coin flip.
“This is a terrible way to decide who plays in the championship game,” said Smithton head coach Sean Hutchinson. “Both teams did a great job the entire time. Everybody worked really hard.”
Cole Camp tied the match on a bizarre sequence that started with the ball settling at the top of the 18-yard box. As Smithton senior goalkeeper Leyton Shireman waited on the roll, the Bluebirds knocked the ball free, allowing junior Dayton Oelrichs to walk the ball across the line.
“From my viewpoint, our keeper had possession of the ball — had both hands on it — and then they kicked the ball and it got away from him,” Hutchinson said.
In the first half, Smithton (9-4, 2-0 Kaysinger) had the Bluebirds backpedaling. Smithton sophomore Devon Hand delivered the first shot of the game from outside the box in the 4th minute. Tigers senior Justin Parker connected with freshman Braedon Cairer for a header, but the attempt faded right of the goal.
Aided by long passes, Cole Camp juniors Keegan VoSmith and Logan Smart recorded shots on goal in the 10th and 15th minutes, respectively. The Tigers followed those threats with commanding possession through the first-half horn. Challenging each side of the Bluebirds defense generated five corner kicks in the opening stanza, including a sequence of four corners in six minutes.
When a handball awarded the Tigers a free kick in the 25th minute, Cairer did not miss.
“We wanted the ball more,” Cairer said of the Tigers’ first-half performance.
Scoring unassisted Sept. 14 against Cole Camp — Smithton’s first win against the Bluebirds since 2014 — and supporting the midfield and attack, Cairer has been a difference-maker for a Tigers team that lost to Cole Camp last season in the third-place match. He said was excited to join a varsity roster laden with upperclassmen.
“I knew these guys would be seniors when I was a freshman,” Cairer said. “So I always looked forward to this. Coach, all the players were looking forward to this year.”
Cole Camp (5-6, 1-2) shifted forwards to half-back positions and utilized speed from senior Chais Paul to split Smithton’s back line in the second half, producing four corner kicks in the final 20 minutes. Bluebirds head coach Tyler Clark said the team’s second-half resurgence is a credit to their flexibility.
“We’ve got some people that can play both ends of the field, so it was nice to be able show [Smithton] a bit different than what we’ve been running at them,” said Cole Camp head coach Tyler Clark. “Just try to own different parts of the field, throw a different look at them and see how we could get synced up together.”
Sacred Heart, 10-time defending tournament champs, loom in the final match after a 2-0 victory against Green Ridge. Gremlins sophomore Ian Viscarra recorded his 13th goal of the season in the 49th minute and senior Juan Fernandez delivered a cross to classmate Rio Suzuki in the 57th.
Final matches begin 4:30 p.m. Friday between La Monte and Stover, followed by Green Ridge and Cole Camp in the third-place game and an 8 p.m. start to the championship.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Hutchinson said. “We played really well in the first half, but our possession and our teamwork started to drop a little bit into the second half. We can’t have that happen.”
Alex Agueros can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @abagueros2.