Staying loose less than 48 hours before the program's biggest game in a decade wasn't a problem for the Mayfield High School boys soccer team.
Thursday's snowy weather threw a bit of a wrench into the Panthers' preparations for Saturday's Section II Class C championship game against the Maple Hill Wildcats, leaving head coach Jon Caraco with a choice -- keep 23 players cramped in a gym, or brave the prematurely wintry conditions outside.
Caraco chose the latter, and, at least from a team-building aspect, he's pretty sure he made the right call.
"We had soccer balls out for about 20 minutes, and that was a waste of time, so we put them away and built snowmen," Caraco said.
The second-seeded Panthers (17-1-1) will face a tougher challenge then a bit of October snow when they take on top-seeded Maple Hill (18-0-1) for the Class C title Saturday at 10 a.m. at Colonie High School. The Wildcats, coached by Section II all-time wins leader Dan Gillespie, are in a sectional final for the 15th time in the past 19 years. Mayfield hasn't appeared in the championship game since falling to Maple Hill in the 2006 Class CC title match and hasn't won a sectional championship since 2004.
Maple Hill has been a persistent nemesis for Mayfield in the sectional playoffs in the past decade-plus, ousting the Panthers from the postseason in 2005, 2006, 2013 and 2014.
"Our respect for coach Gillespie and Maple Hill, it goes without saying," Caraco said. "We've had the fortune of having our season ended by Maple Hill more times than I'd care to remember."
This year's Maple Hill team enters the championship game ranked No. 2 in the latest statewide Class C poll. Though the Wildcats haven't won a sectional title since 2011, they've been dominant this season with a defense that's allowed just nine goals all year and an attack led by 37-goal scorer Garrett Axtmann.
Corralling Axtmann's scoring prowess will be a primary goal for Mayfield, but Caraco said the Panthers have to be wary of Maple Hill's numerous threats.
"I'm not making any great soccer prophecy when I'm saying that the main objective is to try to keep Garrett Axtmann under control," Caraco said. "That's obviously the primary objective of our defense, but that said, they're not a one-man show. I think they play a similar style to us. They like to move the ball around, try to keep it on the floor."
Mayfield, which hasn't allowed a goal in 253 minutes of postseason soccer this year, has a top-notch scoring threat of its own in senior forward Brendan Gifford, who has found the back of the net 27 times this year. Carter Ivancic adds dynamic speed to the attack with Drew Snyder, Jared Albertin and Taylor Madeiros leading the midfield in front of a defense marshaled by Tommy Gates, Garrett Delaney, Harrison Harper and goalkeeper Anthony Brandow.
It's a group that's been together both for the Panthers and at the travel level for the Fulton United Soccer Club for years now, and that cohesiveness has resulted in a Western Athletic Conference championship and a shot at the sectional crown.
"A lot of these guys have played hundreds of games together," Caraco said. "Five of the seniors came up two years ago as sophomores and started on a team that won the league in 2014. It's a team with a lot of experience. They've played a ton of games together, and it's nice that they've put in all that hard work and now it's paying off with a deep run."
The Panthers' trip to the championship game has been a long time coming, Caraco said, and the team is ready to take its chance.
"We feel we've had a pretty consistent program for a few years now, and this year we were able to get a couple of breaks and have a deeper run than we've had in a while," he said. "We're happy to be back, we're honored to be back and we're looking forward to the game on Saturday."
Contact ADAM SHINDER at email@example.com
Alex Cooper/Recorder staff
Mayfield's Jared Albertin controls the ball during a Section II Class C first-round playoff game against Greenwich, Oct. 20 at Mayfield High School.