By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County's boys soccer team limped into its regular season finale against visiting Clarke County suffering from a five-game losing streak, but Wildcats senior defender Blake Steele sensed during warm-ups that Warren County's fortunes were about to change.
Steele's positive vibe proved true for the Wildcats, as he notched two goals -- his first of the season -- to help Warren County to a 4-0 win over the Eagles.
"Through warm-ups and stuff like that we were all serious. We never have warmed up like that," Steele said. "It was pretty cool. All of our shots were on goal and stuff like that. Then we came out here and played as a team and played hard the whole 80 minutes."
Warren County (5-9-2 overall/Bull Run) fell to the Eagles (7-8-1) in a match late last week and have suffered numerous injuries late in the season, but the Wildcats looked like the more aggressive team on Thursday.
"These kids finally woke up and played with the intensity that we've been asking them to play since the beginning of the season," Wildcats coach Manuel Alban said. "It's good to end the [regular] season with a win.
"We've given away so many games this season that I think finally it got in their heads that there was no way we could let these guys hang around," he added.
The Wildcats were thwarted by Clarke County goalkeeper Danny O'Donnell (six total saves) on their first two shot attempts of the match, but Steele put Warren County on top with his first goal in the 14th minute.
Warren County senior Shivam Mehta threw the ball deep into the penalty box from the sideline, and the 6-foot-6 Steele plunged into the crowd and got his head on the ball, sending the shot into the back of the net.
"Coach has told me to sort of be more aggressive, especially on the headers and stuff because you won't really find another soccer player that is 6-6. I should be winning a lot of those in-air balls," Steele said. "I just got over the first defender and dove in. Fortunately it hit my head and went that way [towards the goal]."
The Wildcats struck again just a minute later, as Steele threw the ball in to Tristan Ward, who tapped it ahead to Jonathan Buggisch. The junior dribbled into the left side of the box before lofting a shot over O'Donnell's head and into the net to give Warren County a 2-0 lead.
"We realized that their back four was slow and we just started playing those long balls and those through balls. By being a little more aggressive than they were, we were able to beat them to the punch," Alban said.
Ward tallied his own goal with 5:45 left in the first half to give the Wildcats a 3-0 lead going into halftime. Ward got behind the Clarke County defense and teammate Nickolas Bourgoin found him with a through ball. Ward's initial shot from the top of the box was batted away by O'Donnell, but Ward got his head on the ball off the rebound to send the ball rolling across the goal line.
"I kind of toe poked it right to the keeper and he hit it up, and I just went in for the header," Ward said. "I thought I was offside initially."
Steele sealed the victory with 11:40 to play in the second half, as he scored his second goal off a Bourgoin corner kick.
Both teams finished with 14 shots apiece, but Warren County's defense held strong and was helped along the way with eight saves by sophomore goalkeeper Josh Butler.
"Josh did a much better job this time around," Alban said. "Defensively, I think it was just the swarming effect. When a guy had the ball we had one or two guys on them and then they wouldn't know what to do."
Warren County will be the No. 5 seed and will be on the road on Monday in next week's Conference 28 tournament.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD