HARRODSBURG — The Mercer County boys have planted their flag.
After years as an also-ran, a slow crawl to respectability and two losses in regional title games, the Titans have finally completed their climb to the top.
A 2-0 victory over West Jessamine in the boys 12th Region Tournament final Thursday night at King Middle School gave Mercer its first regional championship.
What began as a dream grew into a viable goal for a talented senior class that had played together for years, and those seniors and some talented younger players completed the Titans’ march to that goal with their fourth win of the season over West Jessamine.
“I’ve been working hard for this for four years. ... We all dreamed of this moment, even in eighth-grade, when the juniors now started playing with us, we were like, ‘We’re going to be something great.’ And now that I’m finally a senior, we’re not done yet,” senior defender Corey Brown said.
It’s on to the state tournament for No. 9 Mercer (21-3-1), which plays a sub-sectional game Tuesday at the 11th Region champion — No. 2 Paul Dunbar and No. 11 Woodford County will decide that title Saturday — and the Titans said simply making an appearance won’t be enough for them.
“We want to make some noise, to go far,” junior forward Mason Angel said.
Angel scored both of Mercer’s goals and had seven goals in three regional games in which the Titans outscored their opponents 11-1.
Meanwhile, the Mercer defense slammed the door on West Jessamine (14-11-1) one more time. The Colts scored only once on the Titans in 320 minutes over two regular-season games and two postseason games.
“It was a big defensive effort,” Mercer coach Matt Vogel said. “That team is very good. We really have to be awake all the time to try to stop them, so the fact we let in one goal in that amount of time is very impressive. I’m really proud of the guys.”
When the siren sounded to end the Titans 13th shutout of the season, Mercer students rushed the field to celebrate with the players, many of whom simply raised their arms in triumph.
Mercer’s nine seniors, four of whom are in the starting lineup, have gone 63-19-6 in their four-year career, raising the profile of a program that had little prior success and reaching the regional finals in each of the last two years, only to lose by one goal each time.
But this year’s team dominated the local rivals Mercer had been trying to beat for years, climbed higher in the statewide rankings than ever before and won the program’s first district title last week against the same West Jessamine team the Titans defeated Thursday for their biggest victory yet.
“It’s very special for these guys, because they’ve had some rough bumps in the past, and to finally break through and win it is huge,” Vogel said. “These guys have been best friends their whole life, they’ve been playing soccer together their whole life, and I told them before the game, ‘This is the culmination and the pinnacle of all that time that you guys have spent together, and how much is that worth fighting for?’ And they gave everything they have, because West gave everything they had.”
The Colts played the Titans to a scoreless draw through a first half in which the teams combined for only six shots.
“Tonight was their best game that they played against us,” Brown said. “They gave it their all, and so did we. We played very good defensively, we had good cover in the back, we were able to stay together, stay focused and ended up pulling out a win because of our defensive effort.”
Vogel said it was important for the Titans to keep their composure, and he said they did.
“I just told the guys that we needed to continue to play,” he said. “I thought the last 10 minutes of the first half West wore down a little, and I told them, ‘Here’s the things we need to do ... and it will happen eventually. Trust me, it’ll happen.’ And it did, thank goodness.”
Angel broke the tie 6 minutes, 33 seconds into the second half after Landon Souder headed a ball forward toward Angel that drew West Jessamine goalkeeper Wesley Holifield out of the goal. Angel got to the ball and got past Holifield at virtually the same time, firing into an empty net from 15 yards out.
“I was just excited to get the lead, and hopefully we could keep playing and get one or two more to keep the lead,” Angel said.
He made that happen by scoring again with 19:05 remaining, this time shooting from 18 yards when Souder passed the ball backward to him at the top of the box.
“He’s a big-time player, and I think this year he finally has realized what kind player he is,” Vogel said of Angel, who leads Mercer with 25 goals. “I’m not sure if he believed in himself before, but the kid is just playing on another level.”
Angel is a year behind Mercer's large senior class, but he shares the seniors' appreciation for the championship they have chased for so long.
“It definitely feels good. It took three years for me and four for Landon and the (other) seniors. It’s awesome,” he said.
Mercer made Angel’s goals stand up with sound defense. The Titans outshot the Colts 11-5, allowing only three shots on goal that were saved by goalkeeper Slade Ransdell.
“It shows how hard we worked in the back and how much training we’ve been through,” junior defender Dylan Carss said.
The Titans, who have won 16 of their last 17 games and eight in a row, went 10-0 against 12th Region opponents this season. They now have four days to practice and look forward to their state tournament debut against an opponent that will have only two days to prepare for them.
“We get a little bit of time to rest up and prepare for whoever our next opponent is,” Vogel said. “We’re thrilled about it. It’s the first time we’ve done it as a program. We’ll take one game at a time, and we’re not going to overlook any opponent we face. We’re going to take our very best shot, and whatever happens happens.”
Mason Angel, Mercer County; Noe Ayala, Danville; Josh Bowman, West Jessamine; Kagan Brainard, Southwestern; Sam Brown, West Jessamine; Dylan Carss, Mercer County; Carl-Lewis Cummins, Lincoln County; Logan Dailey, West Jessamine; Christian Gateskill-Fuqua, Danville; Austin Grigsby, Lincoln County; Nick Henry, Somerset; J.B. Hickey, Monticello; Mason Johnson, Pulaski County; Nathan Sheehan, Mercer County; Landon Souder, Mercer County.