MADISON >>For years, the book on the Hand boys soccer team during the Stan Latkowski era was a great regular-season team that came up short in the postseason.
Not until this season did the Tigers finally reach a Class L state tournament final, having to defeat its most bitter rival to get there. And once Hand got there, it made sure it left with the championship hardware.
But it certainly wasn’t easy. In fact, took an extra 30 minutes to decide Saturday’s Class L state championship against No. 13 seed Barlow at Rosek-Skubel Stadium. Liam Akers was the difference, his header in overtime scored the game’s only goal.
“It took a little longer than I thought, but things fell into place. The right thing happened,” senior co-captain and four-year starter Johnnie Gulcicek said.
The 1-0 win for the second-seeded Tigers (15-2-4) was the first for the program since 1997. Hand hadn’t reached a final since 1999.
“The emotions, it’s overwhelming,” Latkowski said. “As a kid, you expect to be there every year. As an assistant, you are part of it, but it’s not your program. This is my program and I’ve got great coaches. These kids were destined to win it, I just sensed it and felt it the whole time.”
Latkowski also made note of getting a break, which most teams get at least once along the way to a title. Hand’s came in the quarterfinals when the team scored with 68 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, then beat Wethersfield to move on to the semifinals.
On Saturday, Hand had more scoring opportunities in the second half and overtime, but the Tigers didn’t dominate. Barlow (10-5-5) has been a dance partner for Hand in this tournament – three straight years, a 3-0 score between the two with Barlow winning the last two (2013-14).
“For a 13 seed, we gave a decent display,” Barlow coach Paul Winstanley said. “I don’t think anybody thought who was watching this game that we didn’t belong here. I know we did.”
Hand’s Jake Brown had a goal waved off with 40 seconds left before halftime due to an offsides call. Barlow tested Hand keeper Matt Parker just twice, once in each half. Otherwise it was a lot of defense during regulation.
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“We knew it would be low-scoring,” Hand keeper Matt Parker said. “It was really a fantastic game. I may have made a few saves, but it’s really a huge team effort. Our coaches really improved and built us.”
Then with just over 5 minutes left in the first overtime period, Owen McShane lofted a corner kick into the box. Akers went up and headed it into the net.
“Owen McShane played in a beautiful ball and I was able to connect on it really well,” Akers said. “That was that and we were able to get the lead and hold them off.”
Said Gulcicek: “We knew it was going to be a set piece.”
In the state finals, there is 30 minutes of overtime. So the Tigers had 20 minutes left to hang on. Barlow only had one shot opportunity the rest of the way.
“Matt Parker was superb when he had to be and center back Johnnie Hartman was phenomenal,” Latkowski said. “They weren’t going to be denied. It’s nice to finally break through, it really is. These kids were destined to win it, I just sensed it and felt it the whole time.”
Said Winstanley: “We should take some solace in the fact that this was a dogfight for a 1-0 victory…
Unfortunately, we made one last mistake, they pounced on it in the overtime.”
Winstanley noted that he returns several players next year for a program that has won seven state championships. Hand has six starters from Saturday’s final returning as well. So maybe these two teams will meet again in next year’s tournament.
And this time, the Tigers won’t have to answer any questions about falling short when the games matter most.