By Jeff Nations
QUICKSBURG -- After watching his team give up three goals in the first 13 minutes of Wednesday's game against Shenandoah District rival Stonewall Jackson, Riverheads boys soccer coach Mark Husband wondered how his squad might respond in uncharted waters.
Riverheads sophomore forward James Kasak delivered the answer on speed-dial for the Gladiators, scoring two goals in a 20-second span to wrest all the momentum away from the host Generals. Kasak finished with a career-high four goals as Riverheads pulled away for a stunning 6-3 victory that secured the regular-season district crown.
That title had long belonged to Stonewall Jackson (8-5, 8-3 Shenandoah), but no more.
"Stonewall Jackson has been the benchmark that we have judged ourselves on for years," Husband said.
The Generals seemed in no mood to relinquish the regular-season title without a fight on Senior Night. Just five minutes into the game, Stonewall's Roberto Cardoso Jr. spotted teammate Eric Arnesen streaking through the penalty area and chipped a perfect through ball to his fellow senior. Arnesen lured goalkeeper Daniel Cox to charge, then tapped a shot past him into the right corner for the goal.
Cardoso, the Generals' career scoring leader, got a goal of his own five minutes later when he shook a defender on the left side of the penalty area to clear space for a booming kick that crossed through the box and lodged in the upper right corner of the net.
Riverheads (13-1, 12-0 Shenandoah) came right back, as less than a minute later the Gladiators pulled back within a goal. The Gladiators' Elijah Knoop ignited the scoring sequence with a run down the left side, followed by a slicing shot toward the net. Generals goalie Ryan Zerkel swatted that attempt away, but the redirected ball went straight to the top of the penalty box. That's where Ryan Kyler lurked, and his knee shot found an open net with 29:03 left in the first half.
The frantic scoring pace didn't let up. Less than two minutes after Kyler's goal, Stonewall's Pedro Jacuinde collected a ball in the penalty area for a hard shot on goal. Cox rebuffed his initial shot, but Jacuinde followed with a tap-in to put the Generals in command.
So it seemed, anyway.
"Eric Arnesen, a senior who hasn't played a lot of minutes this year, got that first goal and for him to get a goal like that, I thought it was going to be a great game," Stonewall coach Caleb Golladay said. "I thought as long as we play our game, we'll be all right. But a few mistakes can cost you a game."
The Gladiators started pushing forward with newfound insistence, and Zerkel saved a goal with a great one-handed punchout on Elijah Barger's rising blast in the 22nd minute.
Zerkel (eight saves) couldn't stop Kasak a minute after that, though, as the Riverheads forward jumped on a cross from Liam Lambert and sliced a shot across the box that hit the left post and bounced in.
Twenty seconds later, Kasak struck again with a run directly toward the center of the goal. Kasak threaded between two defenders and forced Zerkel to charge before slashing a shot past the diving keeper for the game-tying goal with 17 minutes left in the half.
"The first 15 minutes they put those three goals in, and I thought it would be a lot closer than that," said Kasak, the Gladiators' leading scorer this year. "We fought back and were able to tie it up."
Less than four minutes after his second goal, Kasak got another on a free kick when his rising shot cleared the Generals' wall of defenders and got past Zirkel to put Riverheads in front for the first time.
It was a demoralizing barrage for Stonewall, but the Generals still only trailed by a goal at the break and had already proven their ability to score goals in bunches.
Zirkel made two more outstanding saves in the first seven minutes of the second half, and Cox came up with a one-handed tip save on Cardoso's wicked riser with 33:57 to play.
A foul at the top of the penalty box gave Kasak another chance, and he cashed it in with a perfect shot that curved around the Generals' wall before hitting the crossbar in the left corner and dropping in for another goal.
"Just too many opportunities," Golladay said. "A lot of the first-half goals we definitely gave them a little too much space. That's one of the things we tried to correct at halftime, and we might have fixed it too much to the point where it might have led to those fouls in the second half."
Kasak's fourth goal with 33:05 to play was a crusher, but just to be certain he set up the Gladiators' final score with a cross to Elijah Knopp with 18:51 to play.
"It was a little bit of a sloppy beginning," Husband said. "I'm not sure what to attribute that to, but my guys stayed in the game and we responded."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>