ONEIDA | The Indians are a team that expects to be in contention for a state championship in May. For the final 30 minutes of Thursday's match against Scott High at Jane Terry Hoffman Field, Oneida looked like that team, putting up five goals to turn a 1-0 lead into a 6-0 final.
The Highlanders have aspirations of their own, planning to be in contention for the program's first district championship in May after coming close a year ago. And, for the first 50 minutes in Thursday's match, Scott High looked like that team, limiting the Indians to a single goal.
The two teams played to a 1-0 score at halftime, with the only difference being an Oneida goal that was scored on a penalty kick after an extremely questionable call in the box.
“To be honest, the first penalty kick was probably extremely questionable,” Oneida coach Derek Keeton said after the game.
But no amount of complaining by Scott High coach Eric Henry could reverse the call, and Luke Barna capitalized to give the Indians the early advantage.
Then the Highlanders, already down a starter in Skye Babb, who continues to recover from a knee injury, lost another starter when Toby Garrett received his second yellow card and was ejected late in the first half. Already penalized for kicking the ball in a dead ball situation, Garrett received his second yellow on another controversial call — one of several that left Henry irate.
The officiating evened out in the second half, and ultimately the calls didn't matter. Already with a significant depth advantage, Oneida slowly wore the Highlanders down in the second half. Then, once the goals started coming, they came in a flood.
Even with the score 1-0 at halftime, Oneida had a significant advantage in shots on goal. The Indians had 34 shot attempts on frame for the game. The Highlanders, meanwhile, struggled to generate offense against the Indians' back line.
Nick Gilbert had a hat trick — his third of the season and second of the week — by scoring three goals in the second half. Mason Keeton and Levi James also scored in the second half.
Henry was not happy with his defense, which struggled for a third consecutive game.
“Adrian (Parra, who played much of the second half after starting keeper Luke Bowling sustained a head injury and left the game) made a lot of hard saves tonight where there was absolutely nobody in front of him following up,” Henry said. “Nick is a smart player. He may not have shot the ball at Adrian, but he was waiting to follow up because we weren't marking him. That's what I was mad about.
“I don't yell at freshmen,” Henry added. “They have absolutely no idea what they're doing; they're learning on the curve. But those other three guys, there's no excuse for not marking. We've talked about it the last two days at practice. We got beat at Carter last week and we got clubbed at Halls the other night because we're not rotating and we're not marking. They did it really well for the first three or four games of the season, and now all of a sudden, amnesia.”
One play midway through the second half summed up the Highlanders' defensive breakdowns. Parra made a tremendous foot save, only to have Oneida score off the rebound before he could get back into position in the net.
“He can only make one save at a time,” Henry said. “He hadn't even gotten finished sliding and nobody is marking the shot coming in. It was just smart play by Oneida. They did a good job pushing up and pressuring the ball.”
Even though it was a 1-0 game at halftime, Keeton was confident in his team's depth.
“We just felt like we substituted a lot and knew it was just a matter of time because of our depth, but in the first half, Scott High played harder and wanted it more than us,” Keeton said. “I told them at halftime we were playing a little passive but we were doing everything offensively that we needed.”
As the second half wore on, the depth factor became evident as the Highlander defense started to break down.
“Hopefully we'll get out of the funk,” Henry said. “We talked about what we needed to do as a team yesterday and what I as a coach think we need to do. Oneida played well tonight. They capitalized on missed opportunities by us and missed balls by us.”
Keeton credited the Highlanders' effort early.
“Scott High did a fantastic job,” he said. “This is a rivalry game and we knew in the first half Scott was going to play very well. And they did. A tremendous amount of credit to them, but we knew they would play hard. After that Halls game, we knew Coach Henry would have to light a fire and he did.”
Keeton continued to praise the play of Gilbert, who has come alive as an offensive threat.
“He is playing phenomenal,” Keeton said. “The young man spent all summer and all winter with the ball on his foot. Hard work pays off. It's not by chance that he's having the year he's having.”
With the first of two meetings with the Highlanders behind them, the Indians will enter spring break with three games on the schedule and feeling like they're on pace to achieve their goals.
“This team is built to go win a state championship,” he said. “Not a district, not a region, not a substate, but a state championship. We've had skill players that were a little better in some players, but speed, size, strength, this is the best we've had.”
Keeton said Scott High showed up ready to play in Thursday's game.
“Those guys are gonna be okay because they have a fight in them,” he said. “They came out tonight and brought it to us. I admire that. They're a good bunch of kids. They're from good families. We're all in the same community. We want both teams to be super successful. That's my school. I graduated from Scott High. I want to see them be successful. Coach Henry and I have talked about this. We make each other better.”