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The words were harsh, but effective. With Bruton’s boys soccer team coming off a 3-1 loss to Jamestown on April 29, dropping the Panthers to 5-4 on the season, Bruton boys soccer coach Luke Taylor delivered a fiery speech, spouting his frustrations and lambasting his team’s mindset that losing to a “good team” was acceptable.
“I told them, ‘If we have the mentality that a 3-1 loss to Jamestown is good for us,'” Taylor recalled, “‘We’re not going to beat those teams like we have to.'”
Taylor’s speech resonated with his players, who on May 9 defeated powerhouse Lafayette 4-0 at home, marking the team’s biggest win of the regular season. The win against Lafayette was a turning point for Bruton, as the victory propelled the Panthers to their program’s first appearance in the Group 2A state championship game.
And while the Panthers ultimately fell 6-1 to George Mason in the championship game, the importance of reaching the state tournament is not lost on anyone within the Bruton program.
“Younger generations are going to look up to this and see it as something to strive for in the future,” Taylor said. “It’s been an amazing experience for us to go through.”
To say expectations were tempered for Bruton’s soccer team heading into the 2016 season would be an understatement.
The Panthers were looking at a roster that returned a few solid players from last year’s team, a team that won the Conference 33 championship, but they also had to replace nearly the entire starting midfield and the team’s biggest scoring threat in Miguel Martinez.
“Honestly looking back, if you had told me at the beginning of the season we would make it to states, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,'” said Bruton senior forward Lanson Fontaine, a captain who led the Panthers with 29 goals this season.
After opening their season with three wins against non-district opponents, the Panthers proceeded to lose four of their first five district games, including the Jamestown loss.
Fontaine recalled how well the Panthers played against the Eagles in the 3-1 loss, saying they played “amazing” despite the final scoreline. He also vividly remembered Taylor’s post-game rant, which he estimated lasted between five to 10 minutes.
“We all put our heads down, and we didn’t realize how much we pretty much accomplished in those 80 minutes,” Fontaine said. “After that, coach Luke [Taylor] laid into us about his frustrations, but that made us stronger.”
Days later, after handing Lafayette a shutout defeat, the Bruton’s boys soccer team was in a completely different frame of mind. Suddenly, the Panthers believed they could play with the other top teams in the Bay Rivers District. That confidence propelled the Panthers to a runner-up finish in Conference 33 and ultimately a second-place finish in Group 2A East.
Handling the Big Stage
With Bruton’s appearance in the Group 2A East championship game, the Panthers were guaranteed a spot in the Group 2A state tournament, something no other boys soccer team at Bruton had accomplished.
For Taylor, keeping the emotions of his players in check was a major focus heading into the state tournament. In order to get a better understanding of what to expect, Taylor called Jamestown boys soccer coach Bobby O’Brien, who guided the Eagles to a Group 4A championship last year.
Taylor walked away from the conversation with an itinerary aimed at keeping the players focused on the field — and out of trouble off the field. While Taylor wanted to make sure his players enjoyed the moment, he also wanted to keep them busy in between games.
“I didn’t want the moment to get too big for them,” Taylor said. “I wanted to prepare like a normal game when we get to the field and keep them busy at the hotel.”
The plan worked to perfection, as the Panthers edged Virginia High School 1-0 in the Group 2A semifinals to reach the state championship game. Unfortunately for the Panthers, their opponent in the state championship game was George Mason, a team that won the other semifinal game against Graham 7-0 and entered the championship game with a 22-1 record.
Heading into the championship game, Taylor said he expected George Mason to control possession and force the Panthers to beat them by capitalizing on set pieces.
Instead, Taylor saw his gameplan flipped on its head as the Panthers did a fine job of keeping possession against the Mustangs, but allowed three first-half goals, including two coming off set pieces.
“It was almost the exact opposite of what we had planned,” Taylor said. “We created several chances off the ball, but they shut them down.”
The game ended in a disappointing 6-1 defeat for the Panthers, which finished the season with a 14-10 record, but Taylor said the team was in good spirits after the game. While the loss still stung, and likely will for years to come, the Bruton players never lost sight of what they accomplished this season.
“Yeah we didn’t win, but just to be there when no other team was able to, it was everything I’ve dreamed of,” Fontaine said. “This year, taking the team to the top and making it to states, it’s just incredible.”