Falcons need a goal in OT to defeat Panthers for district title

Saint Stephen's Episcopal wins the Class 2A-District 10 title, 1-0 in overtime over Bradenton Christian at their Dan van der Kooy Field in Bradenton.
Saint Stephen's Episcopal wins the Class 2A-District 10 title, 1-0 in overtime over Bradenton Christian at their Dan van der Kooy Field in Bradenton.

BRADENTON − In a match where both sides knew goals would be at a premium, the Saint Stephen’s Episcopal boys soccer team went to one of its bread-and-butter plays.

On a corner kick in the first overtime, Nolan Winterhalter used a pick from his younger brother Gavin Winterhalter and headed in a ball off the left foot of Jared Gray for the only goal of the match in a 1-0 victory over top-seed and host Bradenton Christian School on Thursday evening at Dan van der Kooy Field.

In winning the Class 2A-District 10 title, the third straight district championship for the second-seeded Falcons (8-5-3), they secured their spot in next week’s regional tournament.

The sides played to a scoreless deadlock in the regular season meeting, so the lack of goals was not uncommon.

When Nolan Winterhalter found the back of the net, it was the first - and only - goal between the sides in 166 minutes, 10 seconds, coming 6:10 into the first overtime period.

“We’ve been practicing that all year, kinda setting little picks so I could make my way to the front post,” Nolan Winterhalter said. “My brother set the perfect pick right in front of him. Guy couldn’t get to me. I just glanced it off my head. Goalie was a little too slow on that one.

“The point is to just get your head on the ball.”

Winterhalter knew it was going to be a knock-down, drag-’em-out match that likely was going to come down to one goal.

Bradenton Christian (12-3-4) appeared to have opened the scoring in the first half. David Thompson sent a missile toward the goal that Falcons goalie Austin Varga stopped but could not secure. Varga did prevent the entire ball from crossing the goal line according to the officials.

“Get one taken, whatever, off the board early. Does it change the game? Probably,” Bradenton Christian coach Patrick Cunneen said.

Cunneen said it might not have changed the result, but it could have had an affect on the way the sides played the rest of the match.

“It mounts pressure for every minute that goes away. If that counts, I don’t think the game plan changes, but their mentality changes which exhausts them through the process.

“As always, they played a stellar game, they stick to it and they keep fighting. We missed one mark that resulted in that goal. I thought we played well.”

Both sides had numerous chances around the net, but could not get one past Varga nor Panthers goalie Charles Nelson.

“It’s hard to score against this team,” Nolan Winterhalter said. “They’ve got some big defenders, really clinical guys that I’ve played club with for a long time. They know my tendencies. They’re a really tough group. I know and played with a lot of guys, so much respect for them.”

“We worked so hard,” Bradenton Christian coach Patrick Cunneen said. “In the first half, I thought we were the better team. In the second half, they came back and countered well. In the second part of the second half, I thought we were the better team again. We had better opportunities; we just didn’t finish.”

It was the third straight year the sides played in for the district title. Saint Stephen’s won via penalty kicks last year and 2-1 in 2021.

“We had a season where we played really tough opponents,” Falcons coach Blake Hoonhout said of playing Parrish Community, Cardinal Mooney, Braden River, Riverview and Sarasota early in the season. “They learned to work hard and play the game simple. They learned to play as a team. I just watched the guys get better and better. Now they are ready for schools our size. They matched up tonight.”

Bradenton Christian was ranked third in 2A entering the district tournament, so the Panthers feel good about their chances of receiving an at-large bid.

The only problem is a physical match like Thursday takes it toll on a short roster that already was without two starters.

“I would assume we’re in. It was physical on both sides, and that’s par for the course. But you start to lose bodies when you’re a small school,” Cunneen said. “This was our opportunity to get a trophy and we missed it. So it’s frustrating.”

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Falcons need a goal in OT to defeat Panthers for district title