By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- Just prior to Handley's match at Sherando, Judges coach Cosmo Balio did a bit of prognosticating: He told his center midfielder Eduardo Santiago, "Tonight's your night."
Santiago, though he leads the area with five assists, hadn't been able to add to his four goals going into Thursday night's match.
Balio said Santiago "was itching so bad to get on the scoreboard."
In 22 minutes, Santiago's itch faded, scratched away by an 18-yard goal, the only one of the night.
Handley's 1-0 victory leaves the Judges undefeated in the district, and hands Sherando its first district loss.
"It was just a hard game," Santiago said. "It's a district game -- especially against Sherando, I mean, they've always been up there -- so we wanted to beat them this year.
"I worked my hardest: I really wanted a goal this time because I haven't had a goal in a while, and I just worked my butt off."
Indeed. Santiago, it seemed, was involved in every meaningful play of the match. He was ubiquitous and omnipresent and everywhere.
Just three minutes after Handley senior Graham Sharples sent a shot wide of the goal, Deni Deyanov dribbled a few yards beyond the halfway line and lobbed a cross to Santiago on the top left corner of the 18. Because Sherando's fullbacks were smooshed tightly inside the penalty box, Santiago had little hope of dribbling in for a closer shot.
High-percentage shots, at least against Sherando, come from 20 yards out.
Santiago lined a shot on goal. He didn't get his whole foot on it, he admits, but the slight miscue gave the ball enough of a quirky bounce to make it unpredictable.
Sherando keeper Zach Santmier, who otherwise had a flawless night with four saves, looped both hands around the ball, but it slipped through his arms. His frantic leap and swipe at the ball couldn't keep it from rolling into the goal.
"He's just such a good kid, you just want him to do well," Balio said of Santiago. "And you know, that goal was great.
"We've been preaching, 'just put the ball on frame, anything can happen,' and that's exactly what happened."
But once again Handley found itself fending off a dynamic, desperate attack while nursing a one-goal lead in a match's waning minutes.
In a 3-2 win over Millbrook on Tuesday, Handley gave up two goals in the game's final 11 minutes to squeeze out its third district win of the season.
In the final two minutes of Thursday's match, Sherando had three throw-ins from inside its attacking third. Twice the Warriors and Judges played ping-pong at the top of the six, and twice Handley cleared the ball.
Even Santmier got in on the fray, leaving his goal box to give Sherando an 11-on-10 advantage for two minutes.
"We just couldn't get anything going in the finishing third, so we threw the kitchen sink at them to see what happens," Sherando coach Patrick Anderson said. "[Handley] played well in the air, and their goalkeeper came up big tonight."
On Sherando's final throw-in, Handley senior Andrew Marut headed the ball just north of the six, and junior Zac Gordon headed it toward the right touchline.
Sharples managed a foot on the ball, sending it deep into Sherando territory.
With yet another late assault foiled, the Judges could once more let out a sigh of relief.
"It's very nerve-wracking, I'll tell you that much," Sharples said. "And when the goalie comes up, you know, that's an extra man you gotta mark.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking, but our boys held through."
Handley keeper Jonathan Argueta, still in goal for the injured Stefano Frantellizzi, had only one save, but broke up two Sherando breakaways. Thursday night's shutout is his second of the season.
Handley travels to Briar Woods today before capping a six-game road trip at James Wood on Monday. Frantellizzi, expected to be cleared to play on Saturday, suffered a concussion in Handley's last meeting with Briar Woods.
Sherando will host Liberty on Tuesday.