HOWLAND - Five times this year, the Cardinal Mooney High School boys' soccer team has scored in the first 5 minutes of a game.
In all five of those contests, the Cardinals coasted to an easy win.
Mooney scored twice in the first 3:21 of Tuesday's matchup with Howland, but the coasting part was nowhere to be found.
"After the second goal, our kids relaxed a little bit," Mooney coach Lou Cali Jr. said. "That's something we're going to have to address in practice because they knew, they knew that every time we've scored early, we've played really well and cruised to a win, and this time it wasn't like that. Hopefully we learn from it."
Howland gave the Cardinals everything they could handle, but Mooney put together three near-perfect goals and added a fourth in the final minute to fend off the Tigers, 4-2.
The Cardinals (8-5-1), who have won 10 district titles in the last 11 years, came in as heavy favorites, and they showed why early on.
Jake Payne crushed a slicing shot into the far left corner of the net at the 38:23 for an early 1-0 lead. Before Howland (6-7-2) could blink, the Cardinals added a second goal. This time it was Byron Abrigg with a beautiful strike that hit just inside the left post and rattled in for a 2-0 lead at the 36:39 mark of the first half.
"They had two fantastic shots on goal," Howland coach George Stevens said of Mooney. "Give them credit, if you're going to open a game, that's the way to open a game."
Yet, that's when Howland started to fight back, controlling possession for long stretches and just narrowly missing out on a few scoring opportunities. Its resiliency paid off with 9:19 remaining. A corner kick by the Tigers was deflected to Benji Rush, and he turned sideways to lace in a shot from right in front of the net, cutting the lead to 2-1 and giving Howland new life.
"We picked up the intensity, and we took away a little of their momentum," Stevens said. "Against a team like Mooney, it would have been easy to just fold, but our guys didn't. They played hard the whole time."
The Tigers nearly tied things up - twice, actually. They had two goals disallowed late in the first half. The first came when a throw-in wasn't touched by anyone and rolled into the net. By rule, a team can't score directly from a throw-in, Stevens said. The second came when Howland was called for offsides, which negated a goal by Kyle Watson with 50 seconds remaining in the half.
Mooney started to come out of its lull in the final few minutes, and if not for a spectacular, diving save by Howland goalkeeper Kurt Kuszmaul with 10 seconds left in the half, the Cardinals would have been up by two goals.
Mooney's Clayton Walker said it may have been better that they weren't.
"We got up 2-0, and that's the worst place to be is up 2-0 at the beginning of the game because that's when you want to get back into a defensive shell and you just can't go anywhere with it," Walker said. "We broke out of it in the second half, and we kept up our game."
The Cardinals came out firing yet again, and it was Walker who sparked them.
He provided yet another fantastic shot for the Cardinals with 38:23 remaining. He received a nice pass from Pat Price from about 35 yards out and put just enough touch on a high, soaring kick that the ball flew just inches over Kuszmaul's hand, putting Mooney up, 3-1.
"If you don't shoot, you don't score," Walker said with a laugh. "So, I went for it, and thank god it went in."
The teams battled back and forth for the next 20 minutes, with each team having and missing out on opportunities. The Tigers finally caught a break when a foul was called from the corner of the field, leading to a free kick for Howland. The kick was deflected by a Mooney player, and Matt Doan corralled the loose ball and punched it in to trim the lead to 3-2 with 17 minutes remaining. The Tigers narrowly missed out on a chance to tie the game when Mooney goalkeeper Robert Premec made a nice save on a free kick from about 25 yards out with 6:02 remaining.
With the time dwindling down, Howland brought up a few defenders to try and jump start the offense, but a turnover in the final minute allowed the Cardinals to seal the victory. Nick Tkacik passed off to Chase Rose, who fired the ball in for a 4-2 lead. Rose is a former Howland student who moved over the summer. He missed most of the season because of an injury, and the goal was his first of the season.
"This was huge for him to come back on his first day and score a goal against his old team," Walker said. "That was just enormous. Once we had that goal in the last minute, that's when we knew it was over."
Howland begins the Division I tournament next Wednesday at Kenston. Mooney hosts the winner of LaBrae and Liberty a week from Saturday in the Division II tourney.