BY MATT PARRINO
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — The Tonawanda boys soccer team allowed just one goal last season in its run to the B1 Title showdown, but it came in the championship match against Medina in a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat.
This year, a different Warriors squad emerged — one whose success on Saturday afternoon will undoubtedly temper all future recollection of that disappointing day a year ago, and earned the team its first Sectional Championship since 1992.
The Warriors' work ethic and determination paid off when they outlasted a physical Akron squad to win, 1-0, in an intense and emotion-filled contest at All High Stadium. The game winner came in the 62nd minute off the foot of senior Jake Choate.
It is a battle-tested, veteran group of players that took the field Saturday for Tonawanda — one that coach James Gabor said never stops believing and playing hard.
And battle they certainly did.
The game itself was a back-and-forth affair that evoked high emotions in the stands. Parents and students were invested in the game from the very beginning, and it showed. An incident following the Choate goal caused obvious friction among some members of the crowd, and some screaming ensued.
As Choate was celebrating his score, running down the near-field sideline, a ball boy seemed to trip the senior and Choate hit the deck and remained there for a few minutes. Gabor initially didn't know what was happening.
"I saw him go down and from my perspective I thought our guys were celebrating and he somehow got hurt — and I'm thinking, 'Come on guys. Don't get hurt celebrating,'" Gabor said. "Next thing I know the officials are talking to one another and Jake wasn't getting up. They threw the ball boy out of the game and apparently he stepped in front of Jake. I don't want to speculate because I didn't see it, but it was something along those lines."
Choate hurt his knee on the collision and Gabor thought he'd be done for the game, but he rested on the sideline for five minutes and got right back out there to help his team finish the game.
"He's tough, he's not going to let anything like that hold him back," Gabor said. "Unless his leg is broken he's going to be on the field."
Back in the stands, cooler heads eventually prevailed.
During the game, Gabor switched sophomore Nate Holler and Choate in his formation to help offset Akron's game plan. The Tigers like to put their speed guys on the outside and try to isolate them. So Choate moved back to midfield in an effort to spread Akron out a bit.
The Warriors struggled a bit offensively with the switch, so in the second half Gabor moved Choate back to the forward spot and the move paid off.
Holler sent a perfect through pass over the head of two Akron defenders and Choate was able to loft a shot over the head of the keeper to win the game for the Warriors.
Gabor knew coming into the season that his team would compete every game.
"I was excited to have the core group of guys coming back this year and I thought their experience last year was only going to help us on our path," Gabor said. "Being the No. 6 seed and seeing some of the teams we were going to have to play, I knew the road was going to be a lot tougher. I knew we'd have to upset some teams but these guys just find a way to step up in the playoffs."
The Warriors certainly stepped up to knock off No. 2 seed Southwestern and No. 4 seed Akron in consecutive games. Maybe nobody did so more than goalkeeper Jesse Bortz. After Cory Compeau injured his hand right before the playoffs — forcing him to miss the remainder of the season — Bortz stepped in and has been clutch for the Warriors ever since.
He made nine saves en route to the shut out.
"I don't think he's the most fundamentally sound keeper," Gabor said. "He hasn't had the same type of training as Cory or some of the other guys have, but he's there to make plays. He worked hard in practice all year and he goes out there and he'll do anything you ask ... He stepped up today and made some really key saves."
The championship was a, and Gabor said that the support of the Tonawanda community has been amazing.
"You could see during and after the game the support of the people that were out there," he said. "It's good for the school as a whole and the kids on the team to see that there are people out there that care about what they're doing and they're behind them."
Next up for the Warriors is a showdown with B1 Champion East Aurora on Tuesday. Gabor said it will be a difficult test for Tonawanda. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Hamburg.
Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.