Senior captains lead Chelsea to area-championship win over Pelham

By SETH HAGAN | For the Reporter

CHELSEA – A defensive grudge match that wasn’t decided until the final minutes gave the Chelsea Hornets a clean sweep of the Pelham Panthers for the 2019 regular season and a second consecutive 6A Area 7 title, as the Hornets scored with 3:44 to go to capture the 1-0 victory on Friday, April 12.

“It was a gutsy performance. That Pelham team is very good and we know it,” said Chelsea head coach Lee Miller. “It was one of those games where it could’ve gone either way tonight, I mean they had chance-after-chance, we had chance-after-chance, you knew someone was going to put it in and luckily it was us tonight.”

As Miller said, the chances were plenty and increased in volume as the match progressed and the two best teams in the area worked themselves into a rhythm.

Chelsea goalkeeper Joseph Gage was the star of the night and posted his third straight shutout and seventh of the season. The junior recorded double digit saves including five in the second half against a hard charging Pelham squad that took 14 total shots after halftime.

“He’s come an incredibly long way, a three-year starter,” Miller said of Gage. “We had to throw him in the fire as a freshman, but he’s developed well, had a great career so far and we’re extremely proud of this shutout, and I’m sure he’ll remember it for the rest of his life.”

One crucial moment Gage may remember in particular involved a free kick for Pelham with 16 minutes remaining. The Panthers sent a ball screaming towards the left corner of Chelsea’s goal, but Gage dove laterally using his full extension to knock the ball safely out of harm’s way.

The familiar foes fought hard all second half including some extracurricular activity resulting in a yellow card for each club and players had to be separated in another separate incident later in the period.

As the match nearly came to a stalemate with just four minutes remaining in regulation and with the match almost certainly headed for overtime, the moment of separation arrived thanks to a couple of special seniors for the Hornets.

Senior captain Tony Nettuno broke free down the right sideline with a Pelham defender nipping at his heels. Nettuno created just enough space and chipped a high pass towards the goalie box.

There was almost certainly a secret connection at work in that moment as his ball found a leaping Lando Nichols—also a senior captain—who met it perfectly with a header into the right corner of the net to send the home crowd into a frenzy.

Nichols then led the team charge to the fans with a trademark slide before slapping fives with fellow students who lined the fence in a moment of immense pride for his head coach.

“Just so proud of how my two senior captains connected for that winning goal,” Miller said. “For them to have that moment in front of this crowd and in this magnitude of a game really makes me proud.”

There won’t be much time for Chelsea to rest on their laurels, however.

Miller knows Pelham could easily be waiting for them in the playoffs.

“We could get them a third time which, you know, it’s very difficult to beat a team that good a third time when we beat them in a shootout the first time and then this thriller so it would be tough, but if you want to win a state championship you have to beat the best teams and this is definitely one of the team’s we have to compete with.”

Chelsea (12-8, 3-1) will have another tough ranked match up as they travel to no. 2 Northridge Monday, April 16 at 7 p.m. Northridge as only lost once this season. Pelham, who has now lost three straight, drops to 10-9-1 on the season and will look to get back in the win column Monday, April 15, against Hillcrest-Tuscaloosa at 7 p.m.