By Billy Owens
Catonsville, Md. - It was lucky number seven for the Knights on Saturday afternoon, as they claimed the NJCAA Region XX Division I title for the seventh straight year, defeating the top-seeded Montgomery Raptors 3-2 in overtime.
Compared to the 3-4-1 team that squandered a 2-0 second-half lead to Montgomery (21-3) on Sept. 18, No. 3 seed Essex (13-5-2) looked much more confident this time around, never giving their opponent a lead.
The two teams' initial meeting this season would be a turning point for the Knights, as they followed that loss by winning eight of their last nine regular season contests.
"We had little issues, some stuff going on," head coach Joe Fiedler said. "We just settled down, and we came together as a team and decided all the other stuff was going away and we wanted to be in this situation again, and we did it."
Tied 2-2 with less than five minutes remaining in overtime, freshman forward Isaiah Price (Bowie) found himself in position to score the game-winning goal with only one Montgomery defender to beat.
"We've been preaching hard work all year," Price said. "I just worked hard to the ball and I won it, and I had to get in position to shoot and I just took the shot, and it went in."
Price's two goals would bookend the competitive tournament final, as he opened scoring with an unassisted goal in the second minute of the first half.
The Raptors would be the more aggressive team throughout the opening period, taking nine first-half shots and forcing sophomore goalkeeper Kyle Cooper (Calvert Hall) to make three difficult saves within a two-minute span toward the end of the half.
Those would be the only three saves Cooper would have to make in the half, as the Essex defensive line was stingy when it came to giving Montgomery looks at good shots.
"Over the last 11 or 12 [games], we've gotten our shape better and we've done a lot of really nice things back there," Fiedler said. "Basically, most every practice, that's what we work on is defense."
The Raptors' offense finally broke through just 58 seconds into the second half with an unassisted equalizing goal by freshman forward Daniel Tshiani.
Essex retook the lead just four minutes later when a shot off a free kick by freshman midfielder Jonatan Gonzalez (Gar-Field Senior) slipped through the gloved hands of freshman goalkeeper Parker Shugars and snuck past the goal posts for a 2-1 Essex lead.
Three frustrating shot attempts for the Raptors followed over the next 25 minutes: the first barely missed just high of the goal, the second ricocheted off the crossbar back into play, and the third landing in the hands of Cooper.
That frustration faded away with just 10 minutes left to play, as Tshiani equalized again off an assist by Pa Keluntang to breathe new life into the Montgomery squad.
The Knights dialed up their aggression, matching the Raptors' seven-shot attempts in the second half, but were stonewalled by Andrade, who made two clutch saves within the final 10 minutes to prevent a Knights go-ahead goal. The score remained 2-2 as time expired in the second half, sending the tournament final to overtime.
Cooper was tested just 20 seconds into the overtime period, having to make a diving one-handed save that resulted in a Montgomery corner kick. Both teams traded possessions until Price got his chance just a few yards outside the goal in the 96th minute.
The Knights' leading scorer beat Andrade for his 24th goal and seventh game-winner of the season to give the Knights their seventh consecutive Region XX championship and 31st overall.
"It means everything," Price said. "This is what I came here for. Coach [Fiedler] told me when I was coming here I was going to score a lot of goals and we were going to win regions, and we did it."
"It's very satisfying," Fiedler said. "We came a long way this year, we went through a lot of stuff and we came a long way."
With the win, Essex earns a bid to the 2018 NJCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship.
The national championship, hosted at Daytona State College in Daytona, Florida runs from Nov. 12-17.