For over an hour on Sunday, the Indian Creek boys soccer team was trapped under a 1-0 deficit against Key School in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association C Conference championship game, seemingly destined for a frustrating defeat at the hands of their biggest rival.
But the Eagles kept fighting until, out of the clear blue sky, their moment struck like lightning.
Rex Flanagan’s free-kick goal from 28 yards leveled the game at 1-1 in the game’s 74th minute, and the Eagles carried momentum through two scoreless overtime periods before ultimately prevailing over the Obezags on penalties, 1-1 (6-5), to claim the season’s championship at the Community College of Baltimore County-Essex.
Indian Creek (12-3-1) lost only once during regular-season conference play, a 3-0 home defeat to Key a little over two weeks ago, on October 18.
On Sunday the Eagles avenged that defeat and handed the Obezags (11-4-1) their only conference loss of the year, and in doing so Indian Creek reached the pinnacle of the conference for the third time in program history and first time since back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015.
“We are going to enjoy today,” said Indian Creek second-year head coach Jonathan Burns. “Let’s credit the boys who did the job today. To come to the final game of the season and know that our backs were against the wall and we needed a big performance against an undefeated team, a gutsy performance from our guys, credit to the boys, they certainly came out and did that today. It’s a great victory for the program and a great victory for the boys.”
The Eagles’ win came only with tremendous effort against a prolific Key team that entered the championship having scored 64 goals in 15 games this season. Indian Creek endured Obezag pressure for much of the first half before Flanagan produced his side’s best chance. The junior fullback took a free kick from outside the box and thumped the crossbar, nearly scoring for his side but foreshadowing events to come later.
Key goalie Luke Nespole corralled Flanagan’s rebound and immediately punted up the field. The ball came to the Obezags' Daniel Fagbohunka, who passed to a cutting Juan Fernandez-Perez, who finished low at the far post.
In a blink-of-an-eye turnaround, Indian Creek nearly had a lead only to see Key suddenly break the deadlock and go ahead 1-0.
Burns said the Eagles kept an unwavering mentality once they went down a goal.
“Mental toughness. Mental toughness and mental fortitude was the key to today’s match,” Burns said. “There have been occasions this season when we’ve gone down first, and early, and we’ve always fought back. The message today was, know that if we go down early, we need to respond.”
The going was difficult. Forwards Zim Ibe and Benny Carter made repeated runs throughout the second half, but Key’s fullbacks doggedly cleared their lines. Time ticked away, and Indian Creek’s chances for a title dipped with each passing second.
With six minutes remaining, Ibe breathed life into the team’s chances by drawing a foul 28 yards from goal. Flanagan, who had demonstrated speed and swerve on his free kick in the first half, trotted up the field from his position on the back line to stand over the ball.
“As I’m coming from the back, I just calmed down and took a few breaths,” Flanagan said. “In the first half I hit the crossbar, so I was just saying to myself, ‘The goalie is not going to get to the front side.’ I saw the wall was a little off-set. The goalie was off to the right a little. I just hit it, and I was like, ‘This looks good.’ It went in, and I was stoked.”
Flanagan’s rip was a missile, a curling blast that squeezed between the diving fingertips of Nespole and the underside of the crossbar, tying the game at 1-1 and sending the Indian Creek sideline and fan section into a frenzy.
The Eagles were energized by Flanagan’s equalizer, and the momentum carried into overtime. Carter nearly ended the game with a low, hard shot, but Nespole was there for a diving save. Indian Creek goalkeeper Levi Kline made one of his five saves to keep the game from ending in overtime.
Once two overtimes were complete, the game went to penalties, a method that generally involves a little luck and that both teams seemed to recognize with humility; Nespole and Kline, the two goalies now sharing the spotlight, slapped hands and embraced before the first kicks were taken.
Penalties stop after each team has taken five kicks, but the teams needed nine each to decide a winner. Key’s Nick Breed, Augie Irving, Fagbohunka, Chris Bulmer and Hudson Smith all converted their kicks, but Kline twice came up with huge saves. The junior keeper dived to his right to punch away two shots and power Indian Creek in keeping pace throughout the shootout.
“It’s all about their eyes,” said Kline, asked how we came up with critical saves in the high-pressure situation. “You have to look at their eyes, and it lets you know where they’re going. You have to be aware and stick with your gut and just do it.”
Flanagan, Carter, Michael Mercer, Ibe and Callum Walker all converted their kicks for the Eagles, who twice had chances to end the game after Kline’s saves but couldn’t convert a winner. After a miss by Key on the Obezags’ ninth attempt, Indian Creek sophomore Danny Swope stepped to the spot with a chance to deliver a championship.
Swope said penalties aren’t his strongest suit, but he felt confident this time up.
“I didn’t even think I’d be taking one,” said Swope. “In practice I think I was 1-for-4. I wasn’t very good. All the guys around me giving me words of encouragement really inspired me to step up and put it in. Usually I go right, and I don’t make them very often, so at the last moment, I felt like going the other way, and I did it, I went left.”
His drive was into the back of the net, the Eagles came cascading off the midfield line in a celebratory team embrace, and Indian Creek had its first title in the four-year careers of the team’s 11 seniors.
“You look around, we have a lot of great players, a lot of great guys,” said Walker, a senior captain. “We put our hearts on the line today and got the win in the end. We’ve been working hard all season, and I’m just so happy to finally get one after four years.”
Senior captain Shaem Spencer said the Eagles, knowing they were the underdog, played loose and free.
“We work better when we’re underestimated, because then we just come out with nothing to lose,” he said. “We did that today.”
Mercer, a senior captain, said the players enjoy each other while still taking the challenge of the season very seriously.
“The spirit of the team, we’re upbeat, we have a lot of energy, very positive,” said Mercer. “We’re always joking with each other, but when it comes down to game time, we get into our zones, we play as a team, we work hard for each other, and I think that was the difference today.”
Burns said the team’s seniors didn’t just earn a championship but created a proud legacy of the program’s commitment to hard work and sacrifice.
“The character of these guys, they’re all great leaders and great friends,” said Burns. “When we talk about team we talk about a collective of 20 guys. We had that this year. We had 20 guys who bought into the systems and bought into each other and believed in one other. These 11 seniors, what they impressed upon the younger guys is, when you work together as a team, and when you live and die for each other on the field and off the field, good things happen for you at crucial times of the season.”
The MIAA C Conference champion Indian Creek boys soccer players are Flanagan, Ibe, Carter, Kline, Mercer, Walker, Swope, Spencer, Bradley Spirt, Finn Morrissey, Jai Richardson, John Warner, John Potter, Sam Tator, Maurice Miller-Elder, Jacob Hawthorne, Tyler Sheppard, Sean Longeran, Sudan Wilson-Gumbs, Nick Stroble and Will Mercer. They are coached by Burns and assistant coach Chuck Goetz.