Underdogs no more

RM Boys Soccer defeats top-seeded Churchill in OT thriller


Abdullah Aljirafi

The RM boys pose for a picture after the game.

Ari Fine, Sports Editor

On Oct. 8, the RM boys varsity soccer team was 3-4-1. After the toughest portion of their season, the team was at a low point. They had just lost 3-2 to Churchill on their home field, and their hopes of making it far in the upcoming playoffs seemed unlikely. After a shift in mentality, the team caught on fire. Three weeks later, RM has won six straight matches, and now face Whitman in the 4A West regional finals. 

After a failed comeback against Churchill almost a month ago, the Rockets defeated the Bulldogs in a regional semifinal game that was meant to be over from the start. The Bulldogs, the number 1 seed in the region and Montgomery County runner-ups, were the strong favorites before the game.

“We didn’t necessarily go into the game thinking we were more likely to lose, but at the same time Churchill’s record is one of the best in the county, so us being underdogs is almost inherent, especially because it was a revenge game for us,” sophomore starting goalie Max Sobel said.

As the game started, the Rockets did not seem scared of the Bulldog’s aggressive defensive style as Churchill had only given up seven goals all season.  RM started off with a quick through ball down the field to senior attackmen Cody Da, whose shot just bounced past the far post. 

The RM boys maintained possession well through the first ten minutes until Churchill started to connect on their passes across the pitch. After a few combinations throughout the midfield, a cross from the corner connected with a Bulldog winger. The shot hit off the crossbar, banged into the post, and dribbled in right behind Rockets keeper Sobel. 

This did not shake the Rockets though, as they continued to pressure the Churchill back line and disrupt their midfield passing. After an offside call on Churchill, a quick counter by Rhoi Phulsa led to a good chance for the Rockets, but his shot just sailed over the crossbar.

As the first half whistle blew, the Rockets were down 1-0, but felt confident about the second half. “In those situations, it was just we’re having opportunities to gain chances,” Coach Brian Urioste said. “We told the boys to keep calm, keep doing what you’re doing, and that we had prepared for so long for just this moment. So they understood that you know, we will have a chance to score.”

The message from their head coach was heard, and reassured the team they were still in the game. “Coach Brian kept it pretty short and just told us to keep our heads in the game because it was still winnable,” Sobel said. “One of our mantras for the end of the regular season and playoffs has been, ‘put a goal in first and see how their heads go down’, and although we put a goal in after them, that message still rang true. Coach Brian knows how much of a mental game soccer is. You need to have a cool head if you want to go far and he knows that.”

The Rockets came out firing in the second half, noticing the Churchill defense was not as strong as they believed. Just over 15 minutes into the second half, the Rocket’s first-round playoff hero delivered again. Senior Khalid Aljirafi, coming off of a hat trick versus Walter Johnson in the opening playoff game, knocked in a cross from Hassan Elsayed just past Bulldog keeper Bobby Cohen to even up the score at 1-1. 

“I still did have faith because Churchill was being really, really good defensively, but they came out really, really slow,” Aljirafi said. “After five minutes, in the second half, I was like, we can do something. After the first goal, their heads went down, so we just went after it.”

The goal put the Rockets back into the game and brought the RM crowd back into it as well. As Aljirafi ran over to the away stands to celebrate, the crowd erupted as he did his signature Ronaldo-esque celebration. The players and the fans both sensed a shift in momentum and energy toward RM.

Just minutes later, Aljirafi struck again. After a poor pass from Bulldog goalie Cohen, the Rockets got a throw-in deep in the Churchill half. Aljirafi controlled the ball, took a few dribbles around a defender, and drilled a shot into the corner. Now up 2-1, the Rockets looked poised to do the improbable. It has been 15 years since the Rockets last won in the Regional semi-finals, and with a team built on the backs of their seniors, this was their last chance to make history. 

The Bulldogs, after an unforgettable season, were not going to fade away being down a goal. After winning a corner, a far pass to the back post was volleyed in past Sobel by a Bulldog attackmen. At the end of regulation, the score was  2-2, and both teams realized this game was going to sudden death overtime.

Two minutes into the sudden death overtime period, RM drew a penalty just outside the box. Elsayed sent a high, curving ball toward the back post, where a number of Rockets and Bulldogs awaited. Jahiem Fabies launched into the air and redirected the ball away for the Churchill keeper. As the ball bounced into the goal, the Rocket bench erupted and stormed the field. The final score, 3-2, was the same score as the last meeting between these two rivals, except this time, RM won the game, advancing to the regional final.

After the game, head coach Brian Urioste was proud of the determination and maturity his team showed. “This was a great experience, the boys deserved it after all the hard work,” Coach Urioste said. “Unfortunately, we had to go down the line. But, you know, this team has been very mature throughout the whole season. And that’s what got us to win, being mature, being calm under pressure, and knowing that we were going to get a chance to score.”

The Rockets now will travel to face Walt Whitman High School on Nov.1 at 7 pm. This is the first time in RM history that the boy’s varsity team has made the Regional Finals, and while considered underdogs again, the team feels confident they can help put a new banner into the RM gym. 

“Whitman is always a tough challenge and a team that loves to play a lot of combinations, move pieces around and that’s how we like to play as well,” Coach Urioste said. “We’re going to get prepared the most we can. We’re going to talk about things that were successful there in the last Whitman game and things that we need to fix.”