It was very much like a scene out of “Twister.”
The clouds swept over ominously during the singing of the national anthem. The winds began to gently rattle nets and backdrops during a moment of silence before the opening draw. Then, out of nowhere, the world began to howl.
By the opening whistle, all that was missing was the flying cow — although, considering the circumstances, some Indian River fans would go on to mutter something metaphorical about pigs taking flight.
Facing the wrong direction against wind gusts clocked between 30 and, in some cases, up to 50 mph to start the DIAA Division II state championship game on Saturday, Nov. 19, the Indian River High School soccer team saw their title hopes whisked away with that wind, as No. 3 Tower Hill took full advantage of the early aid and drained four first-half goals, to go on to an eventual 4-2 victory.
“There was no wind during warm-ups,” said IR head coach Steve Kilby after the game. “As soon as they blew the whistle, it started, so nobody knew what was going on at that point.”
“We didn’t anticipate the wind,” added junior midfielder Wilbert Gomez. “Every ball they kicked was going long over our heads.”
With the Indians struggling to push the ball past midfield, it only took the Hillers four minutes to use the added trajectory to their favor, when Tower Hill senior Drew Manning drilled a winding shot to the back of the net to put his squad up 1-0.
Just three minutes later, junior Malcolm Johnson scored for the Hillers again, landing a long carried pass inside the box and sending a line drive past a diving IR senior keeper Kevin Calles.
Then came the worst of it, when Tower Hill senior Andrew Cercena scored on a zig-zagging free kick from more than 50 yards out, then did it again, in the field of play, from nearly as far.
The Indians would get their chances in the second half, with the wind finally at their backs, but by then it seemed that the damage had already been done.
“We had 40 minutes to try to get four goals to get it tied up, and five to win it. We had chances, and we didn’t finish enough of them,” said Kilby. “They knew what was coming, which, unfortunately, we didn’t — but that’s the way it goes.”
“We were looking forward to coming in ready to play, but as soon as those quick goals came in, we shut down,” added Gomez. “It’s upsetting. A lot of our starters are seniors. We wanted to win it for them, but we couldn’t get it done. We tried to do everything we could to get up, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”
While they controlled possession for most of the second half, with Tower Hill managing only one offensive opportunity in the final 40 minutes of play, the Indians struggled themselves to create opportunities after the break.
They’d finally get things going in the 56th minute, when sophomore Maykin Nunez sent a shot toward Tower Hill keeper Bo Anderson that would end in an own goal that cut the lead to 4-1.
Gomez and junior midfielder Edgardo Velasquez would end up trading eight corner kicks after that, only to see all of them foiled by Anderson as the Indians maintained possession but struggled to finish chances.
“I was just trying to hit it out toward the 18 and trying to get it to bend in just a little bit,” said Gomez of his corner-kick strategy, often seeing the ball blow away before he could get a foot into it.
Senior forward Johan Cordoba gave IR some new life when he found the back of the net on a shot similar to Cercena’s from the first half, making it 4-2 from more than 30 yards out, but that would be it as time dwindled away and the final whistle blew.
Even with their chances fading, however, for senior like Mac Smith — who, along with defender Patrick Mochiam, had started playing for the Indians as freshmen during their first state championship win in 2013 — they weren’t giving in until they actually heard that whistle.
Approaching stoppage time, Smith showed that, when he tried to put the team’s fate on his own shoulders and went toe-to-toe through four Hiller defenders and sent a shot rolling just past the far post.
“It may not feel like it this evening, but they’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Kilby said of the senior class.
While they may feel robbed of their chance to ride off into the sunset with Tower Hill pulling off their first state title since 1988, this year’s seniors will be able to hang their hats on four Henlopen South titles, three Henlopen Conference titles, two state-championship titles and three state-championship appearances, in addition to a 52-15-2 overall record and array of individual accolades.
“They’ve accomplished a lot,” said Kilby. “No other program in our school’s history has gone to four state finals in five years. That’s something that, maybe next week, they can take a little bit of solace in.”
The Indians are set to graduate 14 seniors this season, including Smith, Cordoba, Calles, the Mochiam brothers (Patrick and Mikie), keeper Zane Richard, defenders Andrew White, Max Stong and Arturo Salas, Kevin Parrazal, Matthew Lyons, Jordi Velasquez, Cuauhutemoc Macedo and Josh Timmons.