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Mercer blanks LexCath on Senior Night for 15th win

HARRODSBURG — It could be easily argued that the reason for a late start to Monday’s game against Lexington Catholic and another successful season for the Mercer County boys soccer team are directly related.

The Titans were scheduled to kickoff with the Knights at 7:30 p.m., but the ball didn’t get put in play until after 8 o’clock as Mercer honored the nine seniors on its roster. And it’s because of many of those seniors the Titans rolled to a 5-0 win, their 15th of the season.

There were questions about what to expect from Mercer this season after losing seven seniors from last year’s 12th Region tournament champions. But according to current senior Garrett Dean, this year’s squad banded together to silence any doubters.

“We won last year, so our goal obviously was to repeat,” Dean said. “We played one game at a time, we don’t do anything too special. We have to work every single play, one play to another, and that’s led to a lot of success for us.”

Dean, who scored two goals during the a four-goal flurry over 12 minutes in the first half, admitted the Titans used those questions as motivation.

“Whenever you lose a lot of seniors, it’s rough,” Dean said. “We had a lot of good players leave. … When you lose those guys, it’s hard to reload, but we’ve definitely done that well. People have stepped up and taken those roles and ran with them.”

Coach Garrett Stark said there may have even been questions of how this edition of the Titans would do from those close to the program.

“Every year you lose seniors. I don’t think a lot of the teams thought, and some of the parents maybe, that we were going to be as good as we are this year,” Stark said. “But guys step up every year. It’s no different than next year, we expect the underclassmen to step up. The guys before this senior class and the guys before that built this program and we’re staying disciplined on what we’re doing here.”

The Titans got off to a slow start in Monday’s game, thanks to the festivities breaking up the normal preparation. However, when Dean scored his first goal with 16 minutes, 14 seconds remaining until halftime, it eased the nerves and settled Mercer into its groove.

Cody Shackleford followed with a goal 3 1/2 minutes later on an assist from Brandon Ballard; Dean added his second tally on an assist from Marcus Lewis with 6:46 to play in the half; and Lewis had his own goal two minutes later from a scrum in front of the LexCath (8-7-3) net.

“We relaxed a little more once we got that first one in,” Stark said. “There’s a lot of energy that comes into play on Senior Night. Your warmup’s a little bit different, so it took us a little while to get that first goal. Once we got it, it was more relaxed and we attacked better.”

The goal-scoring binge loosened up the Titans as they used a smooth transition from defense to attack to push the Knights on their heels. It’s something Dean and Stark both said Mercer spends extended time working on.

“It’s tons of fun,” Dean said. “We’ve all played together since the sixth grade, so we all have the chemistry so we’re able to play quickly. We have a lot of athleticism so we’re able to connect really well.

“Conditioning, it’s not fun, but coach Stark gets us nice and conditioned and we’re ready to go. Definitely conditioning is one of the reasons I think we’re able to get back and defend and still make the runs up.”

Mercer kept pounding the ball into the offensive zone and at the net in the second half, and Shackleford notched his second score with 13:46 remaining in the game.

“We attack with speed,” Stark said. “We want our guys shooting the ball. You’re not going to score goals if you don’t shoot. We emphasize them taking shots.”

The Titans (15-2-2) posted their 12th shutout of the season, helping goalkeeper Zack Phillips lower his goals-against average to 0.6.

“When this team plays disciplined and the style of soccer we work on, we’re the team to beat,” Stark said. “… A lot of respect to our defense tonight — a shutout is hard to do against a good team, and they played disciplined on defense. Zack made some great saves tonight.”

Mercer plays its final two games of the regular season on the road before the 46th District tournament begins next week at East Jessamine. A win there and three more in the region tournament, and this group of seniors can do something few thought possible — repeat as region champs.

Follow Jeremy Schneider on Twitter @jschneideramn