COLUMBIA — The way the Rock Bridge soccer players came off the field after their district championship game against Smith-Cotton, someone just arriving might think that the outcome of the game was different.
The players clapped and clamored about how well they played. The coaching staff echoed those sentiments. They gathered around senior forward Brian Breeding as he returned to the Bruins’ sideline with the team’s plaque.
Its second place plaque.
Smith-Cotton won the Class 3, District 10 championship Thursday night at Rock Bridge Field, advancing to the next round of the state playoffs.
Most teams would be dejected after a 1-0 postseason loss, especially when the contest’s lone score was an own-goal. But not one Rock Bridge player hung his head as the team gathered on the sideline for one last time this season.
“We played as well as we have in the all the other district games,” Bruins senior captain Gentry Coffman said. “We came together, the shots just didn’t fall for us.”
That was a problem all season for the Bruins. In 26 games, they scored one goal or less 16 times.
But even in the face of such frustrations, the Rock Bridge players and coaches put the season in perspective.
“I view this season as actually a really good season,” said Coffman, who helped the Bruins win four of their last seven games, “because your goal is to peak at the end of the year, and we obviously did that. People weren’t looking at us as a threat throughout the year, and we started to come together and play as a team at the end.”
A slow start had not made Rock Bridge look formidable. In the first month of the season, the Bruins compiled a 5-6 record in three tournaments and a few single games.
“We struggled at first, had a really tough schedule, that had a lot to do with it,” assistant coach Eoghan Miller said.
Rock Bridge played five teams that ended up reaching the state sectionals and would have played two more qualifiers had it not been for rainouts. Then the Bruins dropped three in a row, including losses to Smith-Cotton and Hickman, to close out September.
“They had some rough patches, but they came together great the last two or three weeks,” Miller said. “I think it showed here in districts.”
Not only was the early schedule difficult in general, it also left little time to improve.
“Part of it (turning the season around) was just having greater practice time with the kids,” Miller said. “We start off with three tournaments almost in a row, you’re playing almost every day. You don’t get to have practices and adjust it with the kids.”
Head coach Kirby Keth said he was proud of the way his team played through the earlyseason adversity.
“We had some tough challenges, back-to-back tournaments,” Keth said. “But these boys just never quit. They continued to hang in there. They continued to fight.”
But after two more losses in early October, Rock Bridge seemed to find new resolve. It won three of its next four games using a style of play that was a catalyst for their late-season run. Stingy defense and solid goaltending allowed the Bruins to win games despite their low scoring.
“They became a better team,” Keth said. “And as a result of all their hard work, they got to the championship game of the districts.”
It was the first time that Rock Bridge had advanced to the district championship since 2004, when it won the title and lost to Francis Howell North in the sectionals.
“That (winning the district) was our freshman year,” Coffman said. “Our class always talked about getting back, and with the help of the underclassmen, we got here. Obviously, we were disappointed, but you can’t be upset at getting second.”
Getting second included avenging regular season losses to district foes Jefferson City and top-seeded rival Hickman, both upsets for the fifth-seeded Bruins.
“I don’t know the defining moment,” senior goalkeeper Matt Albrecht said, “but at one point we just kind of clicked and started playing as a unit.”
Keth summarized the Bruins’ up and down season.
“There were only 32 teams left playing in Class 3, and we were one of them,” he said. “That in itself is an accomplishment.”