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Phoenix Rises In 2OT

Sharon — Soccer calls it a finish for a reason. Without a ball snapping the back of the net, offense becomes the sundae without the cherry, the homemade bookshelf absent shellac, the little black dress lacking the diamond earrings.

Not that the finish need by that tasty, polished or elegant. Tanner James’ double-overtime header of a Silas Mead free kick was none of the above, but it was the finish the third-seeded Sharon Academy boys soccer team required to finish off 14th-ranked upstart Whitcomb, 1-0, in a Vermont Division IV state tournament opener on Tuesday.

Until James’ strike, the Phoenix (10-2-3) was one muttering spell away from protective incarceration. The junior ended Sharon’s misery — and the Hornets’ season — with a clunky nod of Mead’s service just less than five minutes away from a roll-the-dice penalty-kick tiebreaker.

“It was brutal,” James said. “They packed the box, and we finally just got one in.”

Mead set up the set piece by drawing a foul to the left of the Whitcomb penalty area. With a snap of his right foot, Mead’s inswinging service headed toward the far post, beyond the reach of Whitcomb goalkeeper Derrick Gendron (nine saves) and in James’ direction.

Good heading form calls for the target to snap his forehead through the ball toward its intended direction. Good-enough heading form got James the goal as he out-jumped a Hornet defender while spinning, the ball catching part of the striker’s noggin and shoulder before trickling under the unfortunate Gendron at 105:03.

At the pause between the 15-minute sudden-death overtimes, “we talked about the fact that the finish was going to be a piece of genius or a mistake,” Sharon coach Rob Stainton said. “Silas has a great direct kick. Tanner normally scores screamers. Luck of the bounce today.”

The match displayed the Phoenix’s frustration with its finishing as much as it showed a Whitcomb team that has grown into the unit coach Corey Stearns hoped it would.

Stearns’ program boasted 18 freshmen and sophomores out of 28 roster players. Ninth-graders started at both forward spots and attacking midfield. (The latter comes with an asterisk: Zak Gillette led Whitcomb in scoring last year … as an eighth-grader.)

Stearns knew — from a 4-1 loss to Sharon 12 days earlier — that the Hornets’ best hope would be to pack the penalty area and withstand the assault. They very nearly did.

“The guys actually played the game the way I wanted them to play it all year long,” the second-year coach said. “Defensively, they supported one another. They went where they needed to go and didn’t mis-kick the ball. I couldn’t be prouder of these boys.”

If not for the early play of Sharon goalkeeper Sawyer Levy, Whitcomb (2-11-2) might have won the match in regulation.

Gillette (team-high six shots) forced an athletic tap-over save from Levy (six saves) in the eighth minute with a right-footed drive from the top of the box. Gillette then delivered the ensuing corner kick from the left, nearly curling the service past Levy, who again tapped the ball over the crossbar.

The denials kicked off a first half in which the Hornets stayed even with the Phoenix in scoring opportunities, if not in terms of ball-control time. Possession — of mounting frustration and general bewilderment — belonged squarely to Sharon.

“We came in third seed and looked by them,” James admitted, “and we shouldn’t have.”

The Phoenix upped its aggression instead. Sharon outshot the visitors 16-5 in the second 40 minutes — without a finish, but with no lack of potential.

James misfired on a point-blank header in the 51st minute. Gendron snuffed a Justice Magere bid in heavy traffic in the 62nd. Max Buskey saw the Whitcomb keeper snare a 69th-minute shot at the crossbar. Camden Morrison’s wide-open 18-yarder in the closing seconds of regulation struck the side netting, a sight so confusing that one referee initially signaled a goal before correcting himself.

The Hornets had a moment, too. Freshmen Ambrose Wigglesworth and Liam Walker both had open-net attempts in the 64th minute, courtesy of a Sharon defensive miscue. Backs cleared both bids off the goal line with Levy out of the play.

Sharon dominated overtime, ripping 18 shots at, over or around Gendron’s force-field-protected cage. Sophomore Carter Blanchard’s open-net miss five minutes into the second OT — he got around Gendron only to catch a cleat in the turf on his shot — only amplified TSA’s murmuring.

“This is insane,” Sharon assistant coach/athletic director Blake Fabrikant remarked on the sideline in overtime. “It’s like there’s a lid on the goal.”

Seconds later, Gendron barged off his line to slap down a Blanchard breakaway volley, with James bicycling the follow well over the goal. But James found the desired finish shortly thereafter, igniting a Phoenix celebration that read as much relief as joyous riot.

“I can’t say lucky’s the right word, because at the end we started to play,” Stainton said. “I don’t have a word. I have multiple words.”

Tasty? Polished? Elegant?

Nah. Finished will suffice.

Free Kicks: James’ goal was his 21st of the season. The strike came on Sharon’s 39th shot attempt of the afternoon. … Sharon sophomore midfielder Chris Gish will have a busy end of the week. He’ll suit up for the Phoenix in Friday’s quarterfinal, then represent the school at Saturday’s state cross country meet at Thetford Academy. Gish and his senior sister, Margaret, will be the only representatives of the TSA program, which is coached by their father, Kevin. … The Phoenix hosts No. 6 Black River (a 2-0 winner over No. 11 Blue Mountain on Tuesday) in Friday’s 3 p.m. quarterfinals. … Gendron was one of two Rochester High School students who participated in Whitcomb’s co-op boys soccer program this season. “The guys came together as one single unit,” Stearns said. “The Bethel and Rochester kids know one another. When I was growing up, I was in Rochester all the time — but I’m related to half the town.” … Stearns loses five to graduation: Gendron, Jacob Feeney, Kris Decoff, Paul Flemming and Benedikt Agustsson, an exchange student from Iceland.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.