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For the third time this season, Grant County had to play Pendleton County, but this time each team’s season was on the line.
The Braves came up short, losing 5-0 to the Wildcats in the regional championship, ending their historical season.
“We were not ready to play,” coach Bill Simpkins said. “It wasn’t their intensity that we failed to match this time, we just didn’t follow our assignments.”
The Braves found themselves down early, after giving up a goal in the first five minutes. They had been down early in the district championship to the Wildcats also, but kept it close, going into the second half tied 1-1. But this time, the Braves gave up two more goals in the first half, falling behind 3-0 with 15 minutes left in the first half.
“Every one of their goals was scored inside the penalty area unmarked,” Simpkins said. “We did not have a defender in front of any of their goals.”
The Wildcats scored early in the second half to make it 4-0, but Grant County played hard trying to get back in the game. Pendleton scored again in the final minute for the final score of 5-0.
“I don’t think we came prepared,” senior Chase Keeton said. “We didn’t play to our potential. It breaks you down mentally when you’re coming back from such a deficit, but you have to put it aside and play. It wasn’t one of our better games.”
“I thought our defense collapsed and we couldn’t get things connected,” senior Alex Gregg said. “We weren’t ready I guess. It wasn’t hard to play from behind. We’ve done it before, but when we couldn’t stop them, it overwhelmed us.”
Coming into the championship, the Braves had played back-to-back games that went the distance, losing to Pendleton County in the 109th minute and defeating Bourbon County in a shootout.
“We might have been tired from the games before and had the mindset that we would go to a shootout again,” senior Andrew Hemsath said. “Once we got behind three goals, our offense wasn’t able to come back from that deficit. We had to move people forward to create offense. But they played really well and I guess we were too hung up on the win against Bourbon County and not for the championship.”
“Every team in the state ends their season with a loss, except for one,” Simpkins said. “A loss in the regional finals is the best we’ve ever done. I told the players after the game to thank the seniors for our first regional final, so next year we can win that game.”
“Those things are like candles on a cake,” Simpkins said. “They burn and then they are out and they’re done. They are there now and this team has left them. We’ll have more candles next year.”
“We accomplished several things,” junior Christian Cain said. “Our first regional championship game, 11 wins, most shutouts and the 100th win.”
“It feels good to be on a team that was making history and we’re finally starting to earn recognition,” Koebcke said. “Coach has put a lot of hard work into the program. We don’t appreciate it like we should. The games that we lost, most of them were by one goal. We were close to having an even better record.”
“I knew we were a team that could reach the regional final and make history,” Gregg said. “We knew we were going to be challenged by Pendleton all year, but I couldn’t ask for more. Having this season my senior year, I was pretty excited. The last time I was a part of something like this was when we won the district tournament my freshmen year. Reaching a lot of milestones is great and I’m glad my team was able to do it. It was a trip.”
“I think the season went well. We set quite a few records this year. It’s a real accomplishment,” Keeton said. “I was there for our first district championship my freshmen year and to win our first region game my senior year was nice.
“It’s really exciting knowing we broke so many records. Hopefully, the team next year will break some of our records. We accomplished a lot. Even though it didn’t end how we wanted it to, we still have a lot to be proud of.,” Keeton said.
“I’m glad to be a part of this,” Hemsath said. “It means a lot because I’ve worked hard to make history with the program. I always thought we would do this well. I knew we were good enough to do this.”
While the Braves celebrate this season, they are also looking forward to next year.
“We have a very solid core of players coming back,” Simpkins said. “We only lose one defender, which should allow the season to start strong. We have several top scorers coming back. Anthony should be one of the top forwards in Northern Kentucky. Neil and Christian are solid control players. If Logan Barnett comes back healthy, he can be a difference maker. Cory will start in goal for his second year and that always helps.
Grant County will lose six seniors and the returning players will miss them.
“The seniors are a solid, consistent group of players,” Simpkins said. “They all worked hard in practice and were great role models for the younger players.”
“I look up to Chase and Andrew,” Cain said. “We’ve played with them a long time. They communicated well on the field.”
“They led by example,” Koebcke said.
Now that their season is over, Simpkins has advice for his players to let them know that it doesn’t have to end.
“In years past, most players said they wish the season didn’t have to end,” he said. “I always tell them to try and play year round and it never does.”
All-district team: Andrew Hemsath, Cory Kearns and Anthony Clouse.
All-regional team: Hemsath, Kearns and Neal Koebcke.
Season milestones: 100th win for the program, 11 wins (program record), nine shutouts (program record), Frankfort Invitational champions, first regional championship game.