James Jacobs had one thought in his mind: keep the ball out of the net.
As the clock dipped under 10 minutes in the second half of Thursday afternoon’s Class B outbracket playoff game, the Mattituck goalkeeper could sense the pressure increasing. The Babylon Panthers, trailing by a goal, began pushing forward in search of an equalizer. Throughout the first half and the start of the second, the Tuckers dominated possession, allowing few, if any, chances for the Panthers.
But suddenly the space in front of Jacobs turned into a crowd, causing a few anxious moments.
“I was screaming at my defense, telling them what to do, and they were listening,” Jacobs said. “That’s a big reason why we did really well.”
With Jacobs directing the defense in front of him, the Tuckers held on for the shutout, a 1-0 win that sends them into county championship against top-seeded and undefeated Center Moriches Saturday at Islip High School. It’s the first trip back to the county finals since the state championship in 2014. The game starts at 3:30 p.m.
“The goal is always the same,” said Mattituck coach Will Hayes. “The first step is you got to get into the playoffs. The second step is you got to get to the county finals.”
Mattituck struck early, scoring in the 6th minute on a goal by junior Alp Kilinc. The play was set up on the left side with a cross from senior Axel Rodriguez toward the front of the goal where senior Jason Scalia got a foot on the ball to direct it right to Alp.
“I just finished it,” Kilinc said. “When I see the ball there, I just give it all I got.”
Rodriguez and Kilinc were both in on a number of good scoring chances throughout the game. The Tuckers had their opportunities to add some insurance, but couldn’t put another past Babylon’s goalkeeper, who had a strong game.
In the second half, the Tuckers focused on preserving the lead with a more defensive approach, playing five in the back. Scalia dropped back at times to help solidify the defense.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Jacobs said. “He always hustles, he’s always doing everything. If we’re ever struggling in the back, we drop him back and he’ll help us out.”
The game was an oddity of sorts, given the fact that the teams combined for seven wins in the regular season. The Tuckers finished fifth in League VII at 4-8 and Babylon was last at 1-10-1.
But they’re the only teams in Suffolk County that are Class B, so they both petitioned to Section XI to join the playoffs. Teams otherwise must finish with a .500 league record. Babylon defeated Mattituck (6-11) in a regular season game earlier this year when they played through the remnants of a hurricane. Because the teams split the series, Hayes said, Section XI granted Babylon a playoff spot as well.
The Tuckers, after struggling to score goals early in the season, have started to hit a stride. They’ve now won four of their last five games. In those games, they’ve scored eight goals. They had scored seven goals in the prior 10 games.
“We’re finally healthy, which is a big part of the downturn of the season,” Hayes said, noting the team lost five games by one goal. “The kids at no point ever stopped believing.”
Photo caption: Mattituck senior Axel Rodriguez moves the ball up field. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)