Titans fall in first round of state tournament
By BRIAN RICKERD
ALEXANDRIA — Mercer County boys soccer coach Garrett Stark didn’t brush off the disappointment of bowing out of the state tournament with a 2-0, round-of-16 loss to the Campbell County Camels Monday night, but his prevailing emotion felt more like pride than anything else in talking about his young Titans.
Mercer County was decimated with the loss of seven seniors after last year’s loss at this same stage of the season, leaving only seniors Brandon Ballard, Trey Releford and Austin Bartley to anchor the Mercer ship this time around.
That senior trio responded by leading the Titans to a third-consecutive 12th Region crown and state tournament berth.
Mercer County finished just 12-10-3 this season, but that was probably due more to do with a very tough schedule versus shortcomings by Stark’s seniors or any of the younger Titans.
“You know, these guys are going out with three regional championships, so that’s pretty good,” said Stark, who wrapped up his fifth season at the Mercer helm. “Obviously we hate that they had to go out tonight.
We were hoping to go a little further in the tournament this year, but they’ve had great careers in high school, and we wish them the best.”
Mercer County advanced to state tournament play thanks to a 2-1 win over West Jessamine in last Thursday’s regional final at Somerset in a match that would probably be considered a mild upset to anybody outside the Titans’ locker room.
“I always have faith in our players at Mercer County,” Stark said when asked if he foresaw this kind of season for his team. “These guys are great kids, and they work hard. So I absolutely thought we had a shot to be here.”
All that said, Stark admitted his Titans didn’t bring their ‘A’ game to Monday’s match on Campbell County’s poly turf field.
The Titans looked a step slow through the early stages of the match, falling behind 1-0 with 24:28 to go in the first half on a goal in close by Gabe Smallwood, off an assist to Adam Clark. Smallwood and Clark are two of 12 seniors on the Camels’ roster.
“I thought we came out a little flat,” Stark said.
Mercer picked it up after the Campbell County goal and generally controlled the ball and the tempo the first of the half. But the Titans could not get a goal past Camels’ senior keeper Luke Oehrie.
The Titans were unable to carry over that momentum into the second half, however, and the Camels put the dagger in a little deeper five minutes into the second half when Grady Houston scored for a 2-0 Campbell County lead, off a Morgan Drake assist.
“I think they kind of settled in and starting making better passes and communicating…we definitely played better at the end of the first half,” Stark said. “I was hoping that we’d carry that momentum into the second half.”
“We played very well out of the gate,” said Campbell County coach Kyle Newman, who came to Campbell County this fall after three seasons at Bourbon County. “But, I felt fortunate to have a lead at halftime, let’s put it that way. Mercer dominated the last 20 to 25 minutes of the first half.”
The Titans had opportunities down the stretch, but most of them were not close to the Campbell County goal until Mercer junior Marcus Lewis narrowly missed a couple shots in close inside the game’s final 90 seconds.
“We got shots, but we really didn’t get shots inside the box,” Stark said. “We were taking shots a little too far out.”
Looking ahead, Stark sees bigger and better things for his team next season.
“Next year we’ll have seven seniors again, so we’ll be back a little stronger from our seniority,” he said. “We also have some freshmen this year who stepped up, and we have some good seventh and eighth graders in our JV program. So the future looks bright.”
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