When Oneonta meets Chenango Forks in the Section IV Class B girls soccer final Saturday, Nov. 2, at Norwich, the Yellowjackets will face the four-time defending section champs for the fourth time this season.
The most important game of the season thus far will be decided by 80 minutes of soccer, but for Oneonta coach Jerry Mackey, the year of preparation is more important than the outcome.
“If everybody is being honest, we were hoping everything would fall into place and we would close the gap with Forks losing some pieces from last year,” Mackey said. “Everybody wants it on game day, but did you want it two weeks ago? Did you want it two months ago when nobody was around? Four months before that, did we do the stuff that gives us a chance?
“As a teacher and a coach, it has been a really rewarding season,” Mackey said.
OHS has already been on quite a ride during its 2019 season, beating Forks in their second meeting of the season, 4-3, after falling, 8-2, in the first meeting of the year. The Yellowjackets put together 10 straight wins before falling to Forks again, 7-0, in a Southern Tier Athletic Conference tiebreaker Oct. 10.
A 3-0 quarterfinal win over Owego Free Academy set up a semifinal with Waverly, which has fallen to Forks in each of the last three section finals. Facing a 2-1 deficit in the last 10 minutes, OHS rallied to win, 3-2, and set up another meeting with the reigning champs.
The appearance will be Oneonta’s first in the section final since 2014, when it lost to Seton Catholic. The interim has seen a class of OHS players finish four years without a final appearance, but Mackey noted that after defeating Forks on Sept. 9, several of his seniors called Utica College freshman and OHS alumna Erin Stalder via FaceTime to celebrate.
“For them to take the time to include her, and for her to be genuinely excited for them is the thing as a coach,” Mackey said. “There aren’t many jobs that give that kind of feedback year to year, kid to kid.”
The result is that while Forks enters as the favored team, Saturday’s match will be a clash of programs. The schools have won seven of the last eight section crowns, and Oneonta is looking to return to return to the state tournament for the first time since winning it in 2013. Forks, state champions in 2016 and 2018, is at the peak of its own cycle.
“This team, we have seen coming for years. We held them off in 2014 in a ridiculous battle and they were all young girls then,” Mackey said of Forks. “They have a blueprint and it’ll run its course now, and I don’t begrudge them that, they’ve earned it.”
Forks has owned the series recently, ending Oneonta’s season with a 10-0 result in last season’s section semifinal. The Blue Devils’ vaunted trio of Emma Bough, Audrey Bough and Lauren Ashman presents an unrivaled attacking threat in the section.
But that Sept. 9 result changes the dynamic, despite Forks’ authoritative tiebreaker win.
“The good news is, they are working from muscle memory of having won one. It’s not theoretical anymore,” Mackey said. “We can’t run with Forks in a track meet. But if we keep our shape, make them earn it and hold them to two, three, four goals, we have a shot.”
To do that, Mackey will lean on a core of players in midfield and defense. While Hannah Johnson had led the attack with help from Morgan Jipson, Mary Brantley and others, the play of Anika Buzzy, Martine Hitchcock, and Meredith Smithling in the spine of the team has propelled OHS for much of the season. Danielle Basdekis, Maddy Hansen, Maria Farrell and goalkeeper Liz Brantley round out the Yellowjackets’ stingy defense.
“Them getting into their individual roles and learning how to do it in concert with the girls next to them was important. We became more of a rotational group in real time,” Mackey said. “Some of the younger kids started getting it quicker in the second half of the year, which helped our practices. That snowballs in the right direction for you.
“We just want to get back in that feeling where the game is ebbing and flowing and we know it could go either way. The other times we played them, it wasn’t that way,” Mackey said.
Getting there will require OHS to lean on the same group of nine seniors that keyed the side’s development thus far. Farrell, Jipson, Hitchcock, Mary Brantley, Basdekis, Smithling, Avery Burnsworth, Olivia O’Donnell and Olivia Hanbridge are all in their last season with the Yellowjackets.
“On the best teams, the leadership comes from the inside with the coach just navigating once in a while,” Mackey said. “This is a good testament to us having a ton of girls that invest, care, trust the systems they are in, like playing for each other and don’t want it to end. It’s not the end of the world if it ends, but it’s about going about it every day the best you can.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Saturday.