Pelham falls by one goal to McGill-Toolen in Final Four

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

HUNTSVILLE – When the 202 soccer season ended, the Pelham boys were on a roll as the No. 1 team in Class 6A before COVID-19 ended it all, including their dreams of a Final Four.

That was a message throughout the 2021 season for the Panthers, who had the goal of getting here and it was relayed to the team once more before their Final Four matchup with McGill-Toolen on Friday, May 7.

And despite Pelham coming up short in a tight 3-2 battle with the Yellow Jackets, the Panthers showcased what it meant to be able to make it this far after last year was cut short with a spirited effort in the second half.

“Our four seniors last year, I felt awful for,” head coach Patrick McDonald said. “We were humming, we were No. 1 in the state, and for them not to have a chance to come up here was disappointing. “We only had one kid who physically stepped on the field in 2019, and he was injured, so not one kid that stepped on the field today had ever been on this field. The experience was new and different.”

Playing for last year’s four seniors and this year’s 16 seniors, the Panthers came out motivated in the first half.

Pelham got off to an ideal start in the first 10 minutes of the game. Aside from two drives and one corner from McGill-Toolen, the Panthers controlled it for much of that time and eventually capitalized.

With 32 minutes to play in the opening half, Pelham’s Salvador Jimenez caught a ball off a deflection after McGill tried to clear it and fired it into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

The Panthers just missed out on another great look less than a minute later, which would have made it 2-0.

That became costly over the next 20 minutes, however, as the Yellow Jackets got several corners and capitalized.

The first corner ended with a header in the back of the net, but the goal was waved off.

Four minutes later, the Jackets earned another corner, and this time, they capitalized.

After a long battle in front of the net that lasted for at least 10 seconds with the ball right next to the goal line, McGill just inched it across the line right as the Braden Troxell jumped on it for Pelham to even the score at 1-1 with 23 minutes left in the half.

Then, with 16:45 to play, the Yellow Jackets earned another corner. After the first attempt was headed away and out of play, they earned another one and capitalized this time to take a 2-1 advantage with 16:26 to play.

After the game hit the 10-minute mark of the first half, Pelham started to gain traction again. The Panthers got a good shot on goal with 6:10 to play, but a great save prevented the equalizer.

Pelham then great looks and then two corners between the four-minute mark and two-minute mark, but never could convert any into goals, which led to a 2-1 halftime deficit.

“It hurt, especially off set pieces, which we pride ourselves in not giving up,” McDonald said of the two unanswered goals to end the half from the Jackets. “They just were more physical than us and kind of took the fight to us. We responded well in the second half, but it put us in a hole.”

Down by one, Pelham came out with a new game plan in the second half, but McGill-Toolen got the first break of the half to add an insurance goal.

In a battle for the ball, Troxell tackled the attacker with his arms around the ankles in the penalty box to set up a PK.

The Yellow Jackets put the penalty kick in the left side of the net, just narrowly squeezing in, to take a 3-1 lead early in the second half.

From there, however, Pelham turned up the pressure in an attempt to battle back.

“When we knew we needed to score, down two goals, we changed up the formation and went much more attacking. The kids responded,” McDonald said.

For a while, the opportunities continued to come, but the Panthers couldn’t find a way to capitalize.

The final 18 minutes of play, however, were mostly chances for Pelham, and it finally paid off with 2:23 left.

That’s when Marvin Ornelas took a free kick just outside the penalty arc, which he bent beautifully into the back of the net to bring the Panthers within one.

Pelham then came extremely close two more times in the final 1:30 of the game, but it was too little too late, as McGill narrowly avoided giving up the lead.

“I’m proud of our second half fight, and you know, we were able to get one, but unfortunately they were as well,” McDonald said. “Hats off to our seniors. The whole year, they’ve bought in no matter what their role is. I hate that we’re not in the finals. They deserved it, but the other team put their opportunities away.”

Despite the 3-2 loss, the experience is something the Panthers were grateful for, and one they’ll look forward going into next season with a strong cast of players back.

“We’re going to have six starters coming back and those kids are going to remember this and remember the unfinished business that we have in 2022,” McDonald said.