SALEM — Postseason soccer is all about capitalizing on the chances that you’re given.
The Western Albemarle boys soccer team has excelled at that, scoring 11 goals in two state playoff games to secure its first state tournament championship game berth since 2016.
Joey Paulson scored two goals, and Gabe Nafziger and Carter Spilman each had a goal and an assist as the Warriors rolled to a 4-0 victory over Manassas Park Friday afternoon at Spartan Stadium in the VHSL Class 3 state semifinals.
Western Albemarle scored two goals in the first 13 minutes of the first half and added two goals in the final 40 minutes to earn a hard-fought decision over a physical Cougars team.
“That was a really tough game, and to keep your composure from start to finish, that was really the key,” Western Albemarle coach Milo Oakland said. “We showed a lot of maturity, and I wasn’t sure we would have it.”
After failing to capitalize on two early chances, the Warriors didn’t get rattled and kept pushing the pace as midfielders Will O’Shea, Colby Wren and Ray Crowder continued to spring their teammates for scoring chances.
Spilman put Western Albemarle on top 10 minutes into the game with a great finish in the final third. Nafziger found space on the right side and threaded a pass to Spilman alone in front and the Region 3C player of the year chipped it in for a 1-0 lead with 30:43 left in the first half.
The first goal proved beneficial for the Warriors, who were dealing with the absence of defensive midfielder Clay Bright, who missed the game with a concussion. Other players picked up the slack as Crowder and Sam Duska carried the possession in the midfield. Will O’Shea and Colby Wren also had strong performances to neutralize the Cougars’ attack.
“It was pretty awesome,” Paulson said. “Coming into the game, we weren’t sure how it was going to work out without [Bright] in there. But I think we pieced it together and played really well.”
Western Albemarle added to its lead midway through the first half on a nice connection between O’Shea and Paulson for a 2-0 lead with 17:30 left in the half.
“Squid had quite a ball into me and I just put that thing in my bag and that’s all I can say,” Paulson said.
Oakland said the two first-half goals were important.
“It’s becoming the trend that has stuck with us all postseason,” he said. “It’s one that we are fortunate to have that we can’t take any credit for. I think we’re feeling very lucky to get on them early and it sets the tone, and from then on, we get to play with a little bit of control.”
The second half was more of the same as the Warriors continued to shred the Manassas Park back line with its skilled passing.
Paulson notched his second goal of the game 10 minutes into the second half with a clinical finish off a feed from Spilman to extend the lead to 3-0 with 30:16 left.
Nafziger added a goal with 10 minutes left to cap the scoring and secure a berth in the finals.
Western Albemarle will face Northside in Saturday’s Class 3 finals. It will be the Warriors’ fifth appearance in the state championship game. The program won state gold in 1992, 2014 and 2016; two of those victories were decided in penalty kicks. They also reached the finals in 1995.
“It’s what these kids dream of and it’s what I work for,” Oakland said. “It’s always what we’re striving to achieve and we’re really proud of ourselves, and I’m certainly proud of them for what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Paulson and his teammates are excited to have the opportunity.
“I think it’s going to be pretty awesome [Saturday],” Paulson said. “I definitely think we have a good shot. If we bring it like we bring it today, bring that same confidence and mentality, there’s no reason we’re not holding up a trophy [Saturday].”