Frustration was the issue, and for both sides. While Albemarle had the vast majority of corner and free kicks in its favor, things didn’t work out on that end. Deep Run capitalized on fast breaks and was about as opportunistic as a team could be. But in a foreshadowing of events to come, Patriots keeper Thomas Leckrone came up with three clutch saves in overtime and helplessly watched one shot that would have ended Albemarle’s hopes just sail wide.
“We lost in PK’s last year so we knew we had to be ready this year if it came up again,” said Albemarle coach Zach Laird. “Our guys bury them in practice every day so there was no doubt about that in this game. And Thomas, he plays against the best. He doesn’t get the spotlight often but he’s such a rock. I trust these seniors with everything.”
The Patriots and Wildcats couldn’t solve things in regulation, couldn’t solve them in overtime. So to penalty kicks it went. It was there that Albemarle took a close game and blew it wide open. Three shots, three goals for the Patriots. Three shots and three saves from Leckrone with the last cementing a Class 5A championship in a 3-3 game decided by a 3-0 PK session.
“The PK’s at the end, we’ve been practicing them all season,” Leckrone said. “We’ve got our boombox, we play static super loud and you just have to go for it, can’t think at all.”
The first half saw four goals between the two schools with Albemarle getting on the board early thanks to pressure from Daniel Starr which led to an own goal. But back-to-back break away goals from Deep Run’s Alex Saur and Luke Lawry gave the Wildcats a sudden 2-1 advantage in just a four minute span. The Patriots answered with a Wes Cheulk goal with just under seven minutes until the break to make things even at 2-2.
The second half went just the like first. Deep Run got a perfectly placed shot from Matthew Shriner to the top right corner of the net 13 minutes into the second half. Then Albemarle answered in kind with Nicholas Matavelli stepping up from a defensive position and cleaning up a scrum in front of the box to get the equalizer at 3-3 with 19 minutes left.
“The ball rolled out and I saw it and knew what I had to do,” Matavelli said. “I just kicked it the right way and then it just goes in. We knew we needed it and it was just the fuel to the fire.”
The next 31 minutes, 20 of them in overtime, saw seemingly countless opportunities for both sides. They also saw the heat take its toll with cramps sidelining player after player. Both teams agonized through the overtime and then all of the sudden, the Patriots found new life in penalty kicks.
“I can’t think of any other team I’ve played on that could go down twice like this in a state championship game like this and just kept with it and got that equalizer and just kept going,” said Albemarle senior Andrew Weber. “It’s unheard of, at least on any team I’ve been on.”
The Patriots took the first kick and junior Brandon Mahon had little trouble making it 1-0. Then Leckrone walked out to meet his first kicker face to face, stare him down and then walk back to the line.
“Yeah Thomas does that, he’s just intimidating and of any of the final four teams here (this weekend) we knew we had the best goalie,” Weber said. “There’s nobody else I’d want back there. He just knows how to come up with those huge saves.”
He did it all three times he faced a shot. He stopped the first PK. Then Daniel Starr buried his shot to make ti 2-0 for the Patriots. Leckrone’s second save was dicey with the ball nearly rolling back past the goal line but the save gave Albemarle a substantial advantage. With Logan White connecting on his shot right afterwards, the worst the Patriots could do was tie and force more PKs. Leckrone made things easy right after that with a third straight stop to wrap up the win and give the Patriots a third state title since 2012.
Albemarle has played in a state title game in 2012, 2014, 2016 and now 2018 and gone 3-1 in the process. With the program’s first state title coming in 2012, expectations have changed. Now a senior class, with Weber among them who has a two state titles to his name, the bar is pushed higher for a group that returns an awful lot of talent in 2019. And perhaps nobody has had a better vantage point on that than Nicholas Buck, who’s been sidelined with injury. Buck, a senior, played on the 2016 title winning team and got to participate on the sidelines in a different way after a season ending injury.
“Not going to lie, there are some pretty big shoes to fill, but I have so much faith in this group,” Buck said. “Wes Cheuk, Brandon Mahon, Daniel Starr, they can play. They can hold this up.”
While the Patriots have won state titles previously, they have not gone unbeaten before. So at 20-0-1, this Albemarle team now has something unique, as if a championship isn’t enough. But when you’re trying to beat out previous state title accomplishments at your own school, you’ve no longer arrived. This is about legacy. In six years, a lot has been established across the state about what Albemarle soccer is. A perennial threat. At the worst, a lock in the even years.
“It still doesn’t seem real for me,” Laird said. “But I think it will soon enough.”