CLARKDALE — Kodee Conner had the game of a lifetime.
In what ended up being his last performance as a member of the Clarkdale boys soccer team, the senior goalkeeper had the daunting task of keeping defending state champion Sacred Heart out of the net.
For nearly all of regulation in Tuesday’s MHSAA Class 1/2/3A South State final, Conner and his fellow Bulldogs quelled the Crusaders’ offensive attack, with Conner punching out and catching shots, and Clarkdale defenders giving up their bodies to deflect the ball away from the goal.
With less than two minutes to play in the second half of a scoreless stalemate, a foul called on the Bulldogs in their own box gave Sacred Heart a penalty kick and the chance to grab the game’s first lead. Conner picked the correct side, diving to his right, but the shot floated above his grasp for the goal.
Clarkdale needed to equalize, and it needed to quickly. In the waning seconds of the second half, the Bulldogs were awarded their own penalty kick after the Crusaders’ keeper collided with a Clarkdale forward, setting up Cole Gardner with the opportunity to even the score. The junior snuck a shot into the bottom right side of the net for the game-tying goal seconds before the head official blew the whistle, sending the contest into overtime.
The two squads battled further into the evening, with Conner making four crucial saves. The go-ahead goal from Sacred Heart with 2:45 left in overtime sealed it for the Crusaders as the Bulldogs failed to pull even, ending their postseason run in heartbreaking fashion, one game shy of a state championship game berth.
“It sucks. There’s really no other way to say it,” Clarkdale head coach Luke Smith said. “We competed, competed, competed, and then they sneak a goal right in there with two minutes left. These guys played 100 minutes with everything they had, and they came away with the loss. Sometimes, the ball just doesn’t go your way.”
Conner finished with 12 saves in the final game of his high school career.
“He’s honestly the most athletic one of our team,” Smith said. “He makes saves all the time, he’s quick to get out to a ball if it gets behind our defense — he did everything we could’ve asked him to do tonight.”
For almost the entirety of the first half, Clarkdale (15-9-2) was on the defensive as it struggled to move the ball into enemy territory. Gardner’s shot at the net off a set piece in the 32nd minute, corralled by the Crusaders’ goalie, was the Bulldogs’ only shot on goal before intermission. Conner fended off three shots on target by Sacred Heart (14-2-3).
Smith’s second-half adjustments opened up the field for Clarkdale’s attack, and the Bulldogs made frequent trips into the opposing box and put four shots on target. In the 51st minute, a ball that ended up in the Crusaders’ net was ruled not a goal after the Sacred Heart goalkeeper hauled in a save from close range but dropped the ball when he was run into by a Clarkdale player.
The Bulldogs also had an open look at net in the 77th minute but were flagged for offside.
“Their nerves calmed down a bit, and they settled into the game after that first half,” Smith said. “We were trying to play a lot over the top; it just wasn’t working, so we switched that up to where we weren’t always going over the top and I think that opened up the middle for us to where we could move the ball.”
Clarkdale held strong through the first 60 minutes of the match but had to play even stronger after a Bulldog striker was handed down his second yellow card for a crashing into the opposing keeper, who had seized the ball, while sprinting to gain possession himself. He was then presented with a red card and sent off the field, leaving Clarkdale with 10 players to finish the game.
“It’s always hard when you’re down a man, so we pretty much just dropped everybody (back) but one guy, and at that point you’ve just got to hope you get a counter attack or a set piece and score on that,” Smith said. “And we had a bunch, we just didn’t get enough.”
The Bulldogs nearly equalized again once they went down 2-1 in the final minutes when a kick from midfield bounced over the Sacred Heart goalkeeper and headed straight for the goal. The goalie made a quick 180-degree turn and stretched out his arms to snag the ball before it crossed the plain.
The loss for Clarkdale snapped a six-game winning streak that saw it outscore opponents 28-2 and was capped off with a victory over St. Patrick in the quarterfinals last Saturday. Sacred Heart advances to the 1/2/3A state title game this Saturday.
“I was telling them this is one of the best seasons Clarkdale’s ever had,” Smith said he expressed to his team afterward. “Our goal is to come back Thursday morning, start working out and get ready for the next season so we can do better next year.”