VERNON - Before the start of the 2013 season, the Badger Braves set a goal of earning the district championship, a feat this group of Braves had yet to accomplish despite winning the Northeastern Athletic Conference every year.
At home on Saturday afternoon, they accomplished that goal, winning their first district championship since 2008 with a 2-1 victory over Lordstown in a Division III district final match.
"I couldn't be more proud of anyone," Badger coach Justin Deraway said. "It's been such a great group. They've come so far from the beginning of the year when we started in conditioning. I couldn't think of a group that deserves it more. It's a great group of kids."
Lordstown (13-4-1) made the Braves (16-1-1) earn that district championship, giving the Braves a run for their money.
The Red Devils controlled long periods of possession, especially early in the second half, and they took it to Badger, despite losing twice during the regular season in NAC play.
"All week, we talked about not taking Lordstown lightly because they were playing the best soccer they played all season right at the end," Deraway said. "They came out and proved it today. They gave us a great game."
Lordstown turned all the possession and pressure on the Badger end into the opening goal in the 51st minute.
Red Devil midfielder Dustin Hajnosz sent in a corner into the 6-yard box, where the Braves failed to clear the ball. Paul Yasnowski managed to get onto the ball and popped it into the back of net.
While this goal was the culmination of good play by Lordstown, it woke up the Braves, as they needed one minute to equalize. Braden Elsea curled a shot from the edge of the 18-yard box past Lordstown goalkeeper Dylan Negro.
Badger then clinched the win off a Colton Kellogg free kick in the 71st minute. As the ball swung deep inside the 18-yard box, Elsea flicked the ball with his his right foot toward forward Joe Gorospe, who headed the ball into the net.
"What shot through my mind first was, 'Don't let down. We can't drop our heads because as soon as we dropped our heads, they'd capitalize,' " senior co-captain Scott Smith said when asked about the morale of the team after Lordstown's goal. "We had to focus and keep our heads up and try to work as a team."
While the Red Devils threatened on many occasions, Badger held Lordstown's biggest goal-scoring threat, Jake Jones, in check.
Anytime the senior forward sniffed at the ball, a Brave was attached to his hip, giving him no space to create for himself and fire an attempt on net. Deraway said the gameplan was to have Smith, Badger's sweeper, tail him and have his fellow defenders help double- and triple-team him if necessary.
"We focused all season on his speed, just not letting him take a quick shot from distance," Smith said. "We've always tried to put one defender right in front of him and always have that support."
Although Lordstown's season came to a close, coach Tim Malone said he was still proud of the team's effort on Saturday.
According to Malone, Badger is the team to beat in the conference and one of the better teams in the Division III, Kent district. To have made a run to the district final and to have played well against the Braves showed his team was successful, he said.
"Badger, in our conference and in our district, is what you measure the success by," Lordstown coach Tim Malone said. "All the credit to them - as hard as we played, we executed the way we wanted to execute, we thought we had it, but we came up short in the end."
As for Badger, the team moves onto the regional semifinal on Wednesday against Hawken at Brunswick High School.
Before the Braves start to focus on that match, they will try to enjoy this win.
"It's an amazing feeling," Smith said. "It hasn't quite settled in yet, to be honest, but I can't be happier with this team. We've come so far."