Western Albemarle boys soccer came in ready to match Lord Botetourt’s physicality, which is no surprise, the Warriors have emerged down the stretch as a team with a blue collar, relentless identity and approach to the game.
“Before the game our coach told us not to worry about fouls, that they happen if you’re playing hard so we just went in with that mentality,” said Western Albemarle’s Jed Strickland. “We played aggressively and it worked out.”
Tuesday in the Class 3 state quarterfinals, with a pair of goals from Joey Paulson and Laclan Murphy, Western powered past Lord Botetourt 2-1. With the win, the Warriors return to the state final four after a one-year layoff that followed winning the 2016 state title. They’ll fae CAve Spring in the state semifinals Friday at Roanoke College.
Part of that blue collar identity that Western has developed is the fact that Western has largely gotten their offense this year by committee. Without a consistent, constant single scoring threat, the Warriors have had to get help from everywhere and work hard to score goals. Unlike in years past where they could push the ball up to a dominant productive striker like Forest White in 2014 or Aidan Sinclair in 2016, Western has had to get everyone involved and more often than not, fight for a key goal.
“It’s what we’re going to get, it’s not about needing or wanting it, it is what it is,” said Western coach Milo Oakland. “From a coaching standpoint it’s excellent, it makes it easy to keep the chemistry alive, no one person is bigger than the team, everyone is willing to share.”
Paulson picked up the first goal with 25:09 left in the first half with Johnny Riordan assisting, forcing the Cavaliers to play in a hole for the bulk of the game. In the wake of the first goal, Western’s intensity seemed to lose just a touch of its edge, but most of that was because Lord Botetourt stepped up its own level of play.
“I think it can kind of have a tendency to wake another team up or you can get complacent on your own end but it’s not that we started playing badly, it’s that they’re not a bad team,” Oakland said. “If you stop playing really well which we were in the early going, and we stopped getting this lockdown pressure in the central midfield, they’re going to make some plays.”
Murphy made sure that Western didn’t have to keep living on that knife’s edge of a 1-0 lead when he unleashed a laser of a goal just a couple of minutes into the second half, ripping a strike from the top of the box with 37:40 to play off a Carter Spilman assist.
“That’s usually the shot that I work on the most so when the opportunity came I just knew I had to take it,” Murphy said.
That cushion didn’t last long as Western gave up a goal to Kyle Wood on a header with 29:05 left to play off a set piece. For a team that didn’t give up a single goal in the Region 3C tournament — even in penalty kicks in the title match with Spotswood — it was a rare defensive mistake. But Western recovered quickly and shut down a number of key chances down the stretch.
“We gave up a goal on a set piece and we didn’t think we handled those particularly well but other than that, I think defensively we shut down pretty much all of their attacks,” Strickland said.