Floyd Central has won five boys' soccer sectional titles in the past six seasons.
Last season, Drew Cromwell provided the game-winning goal in the championship against Jeffersonville. Cromwell gave the Highlanders the opportunity to play for another championship with a goal in the final three minutes Wednesday to beat Columbus North by a 1-0 margin in the first semifinal of the Class 3A Floyd Central Sectional. No. 5 Columbus East won the nightcap 4-2 over New Albany.
The Highlanders and Bull Dogs were locked up in a 0-0 tie, but the Highlanders had the edge in the final 20 minutes.
"We were laying it on them, keeping it in their half of the field," Cromwell said. "With time ticking away, tried to keep it going deeper and deeper. The ball poked out. I pulled it down, found Pablo [Flores] leaking through and he played me right back. I split two defenders and put it right underneath the keeper."
The Highlanders improved to 7-8-2 this season, playing a gauntlet of a schedule against some of Kentucky and Indiana's top teams.
"We’ve seen all the way up to No. 1 in the stat.e We’re prepared for whatever the sectionals got thrown at us," Cromwell said. "As long as we can settle in and play our game early, I don’t think there’s anyone we can’t beat."
The Highlanders haven't been able to tout that type of confidence throughout the tough regular-season, Coach Scott Menne said, but he's glad to see it paying off.
"This is by far the hardest schedule we've ever had. We've played a lot of ranked teams. We do that for a reason to be ready for teams like North and East," Menne said. "The boys are used to 13-win seasons but when we ratchet it up, the ball doesn't always go your way. We've done this to strengthen ourselves, to find that resilience and determination."
The Highlanders had 17 shots to four for Columbus North.
"We were able to connect, combine and attack both sides of the field and through the middle," Menne said.
Columbus North nearly took the lead with about 20 minutes remaining but Highlanders' keeper Liam Fitzgerald came up big.
"They had a fantastic opportunity, that if our goalie didn't get his fingertips on it. ... That may have woken us up and got us to react and respond," Menne said.
While the Bull Dogs were shut out, the other team visiting from Columbus wasted no time getting on the scoreboard.
The Olympians scored three minutes in as Leyton Erfmeier scored in the third minute.
"Anytime you concede a goal in the first three minutes, it's not a good way to start," New Albany coach Josh Dickman said. "We had plenty of chances in the first half to even things up. Give them credit. They have some guys with tremendous pace and tremendous skill that proved to be too much for us tonight."
Logan Cline made it a 2-0 lead for Columbus East five minutes into the second half, but senior Noah Litzelswope found the back of the net just four minutes later to give the Bulldogs hope for a rally.
East made sure to sink those feelings quickly.
Logan Cline scored just four minutes later and Jorge Nieto provided more insurance. He dribbled left and fired a left-footed shot for a goal that made it 4-1.
Litzelswope picked up a second goal on a penalty kick, but New Albany finished its season 9-5-5.
"I felt like when we got it to 2-1, we might have had a moment but they came right back and scored. That's a good team. They're No. 5 in the state for a reason," said Dickman, who will lose Hayden Krebs, Litzelswope, Cameron Embry, Ivan Lazaro Resendiz and Kolt Kaiser to graduation.
"You hurt for the seniors. This is the first group we've had for four years," Dickman said. "We're going to miss them. Those guys can really play and my heart hurts for them right now. We ask our guys to leave the program better than they found out. Over the last four years, New Albany soccer has made the biggest steps because of this group of seniors it ever has in the history of the program."