NEWCASTLE — Mount St. Mary's Connor Hartzell admits he lost focus near the end of the last soccer season, when the Rockets lost in the championship game.
His head was fully in the game Saturday.
A cross kick bounced off the top of the goal and directly to Hartzell's head, and the sophomore scored on a header with 1:44 left in overtime to give the Rockets a 2-1 win over No. 1 Santa Fe South and the Class 4A state championship.
“I had to keep my composure,” Hartzell said of seeing the ball come toward him. “Once it was in the goal, then it was time to celebrate.”
Grades and injuries cost Hartzell the chance to play in last year's playoffs as a freshman.
“I had to sit and watch my team from the sideline,” Hartzell said. “As soon as the game ended last year, I knew we had to start training for this year. No distractions.
“Last year hurt, but I've come full circle.”
Ditto for the Rockets' soccer program in four seasons under coach Francois Boda. His first season, Mount St. Mary was 1-9 and lost 10-0 in a mercy-rule game to Santa Fe South.
“(Santa Fe South) showed us how far we have to come to win a state championship,” said senior Joe Naugle, who was a freshman that year.
The mental toughness Boda has instilled in his team over the past four seasons was an absolute necessity Saturday, when the Rockets were down 1-0 as the game clock ticked below 30 seconds.
With 17 seconds remaining, the ball landed in front of Naugle off a corner kick, and he drilled it into the net to tie the match.
“Even with 17 seconds left, we still believed we could win,” Boda said.
Close games have defined St. Mary's postseason; the Rockets won their first-round game in overtime and won a shootout to top Poteau in the semifinals.
“We've played a lot of close games, and we stayed focus and finished,” Naugle said.
“Last year, we came in as the underdog, but we stayed the underdog and lost. This year, we came in as the underdog, but I felt like we believed in ourselves, and we finished.”
Yes, a lot has changed since that runner-up finish last year, not the least of which is Hartzell's maturity and focus.
“He's my wild card,” Boda said. “He's so young, so sometimes he plays well and sometimes he doesn't. I have to pick my spots with him.
“Today, I had a good feeling about putting him in the game.”