SOUTH BURLINGTON – Standing at midfield, waiting to re-enter as a substitute, Nate Cary heard his coach say he had three minutes to create a scoring chance.
Cary, nursing a knee injury that has limited him in recent weeks, fired back, asking for more time.
“We had a game plan for how long we wanted to play him and we went over that,” Rice coach Matt Gazo said. “When you have one of the best players in the state, you can’t keep him on the bench in the last few minutes.”
And for good reason.
Cary headed in the go-ahead goal with 7 minutes, 50 seconds to play — his second late strike in as many games — and No. 2 Rice ousted second-seeded and defending champion South Burlington 1-0 in the Division I high school boys soccer semifinals Tuesday.
Rice (15-2) advances to Saturday’s D-I title game at Burlington High School vs. No. 1 Champlain Valley, which emerged from Tuesday’s other semifinal with a 1-0 win over Mount Anthony.
Rice goal. Nate Cary with header. pic.twitter.com/GaN8tSh6jr— Alex Abrami (@aabrami5) October 27, 2015
And the Green Knights, who set a school record for wins and captured the D-II title in 2014 before requesting the move to D-I, set their finals match with CVU on strength of Cary’s late-regulation magic.
After blasting in a rebound chance in the closing minutes against Essex in the quarterfinals, Cary again found himself in goal-scoring position against South Burlington.
When Evan Rouleau’s long throw into the 18-yard box skipped off the head of a South Burlington defender and tumbled toward goal, Cary pounced and placed the ball inside the left post.
“I saw it open because the goalie was drifting toward the ball,” Cary said. “I didn’t really think about it, I just played it like every shot. If I had let my emotions get the best of me, I might have missed. I just played it cool and celebrated afterward.”
Gazo: “He made a good run inside his defender. It was a great header.”
While Cary’s well-placed header won the game, Rice’s size and build-up for long runs and Hayden Kjelleran’s man-marking of Patrick O’Hara, South Burlington’s top player, ultimately tilted the outcome in the Green Knights’ favor.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, we lost to a good team,” South Burlington coach David Martin said. “We stayed with them and the game went exactly as we thought it would. They would knock the ball long and would have long throw-ins and we would have to defend those and then counter attack.”
The Rebels’ go-to player with his share of game-winners this fall, O’Hara’s touches were limited by Kjelleran, denying South Burlington possible counter opportunities.
“They made him work and when your opponent makes your goal-scorer work, usually good things happen for your opponent because you have taken him out of the game,” Martin said.
The Rebels’ best chance came at the midpoint of the first half — a minute after a Rice goal was disallowed due to an offside call.
Mike Flaherty threaded a through ball to Rakesh Subedi, who slipped behind the Rice defense and unloaded a left-footed shot on goal. Rice’s Leland Gazo (three saves) reacted quickly, diving to his left to keep the game scoreless.
A few minutes later, a pair of Sam Dickin shots were smothered by South Burlington goalie Tyler Ayers (five saves).
Looks at net were fleeting in the second half. The stalemate, though, wouldn’t need extra time to determine a winner in the teams’ first playoff meeting.
With encouraging words from the bench, Cary delivered.
“I know the team is banking on me to get the goal if it comes to that,” Cary said.
For South Burlington (14-3), another title march didn’t materialize.
Riding an eight-game winning streak with five shutouts, the Rebels, reloading after graduating nine starters from last year’s storybook finish, were in fine form entering Tuesday’s semifinals and had hoped to reach the program’s 13th final.
“We overachieved this year. We did win the Metro and that’s something to be proud of,” Martin said. “We thought we had a very good chance to come in and make it to the finals. But it’s soccer and we lost to a good team.”