From the way Rock Bridge’s Jeremiah Johnson celebrated his goal Tuesday night, you would have thought it was a game-winner.
The senior sprinted from the center of the field and kicked over the corner flag, breaking it, as his team erupted into cheers behind him.
Johnson was given a yellow card for excessive celebration.
But the goal wasn’t a game-winner. The game hadn’t even passed its 10-minute mark when Johnson scored. All he’d done was put the Bruins on the board to even the score against one of their biggest rivals.
It was a moment coach Scott Wittenborn wasn’t proud of.
“That was the bulk of the postgame talk: Winning is great; character is 10 times more important,” he said. “I always want them to carry well, and I thought the bulk of my team handled themselves very, very well. But I’m never going to condone chirping at the other team or showboating or kicking a corner flag. But they’re kids and they get fired up, especially for a rivalry game. So we just try to continue to teach life lessons.”
Rock Bridge beat Hickman 2-1 on Tuesday night in a high-intensity crosstown matchup. Hickman coach Will Ross said it’s what he’s come to expect when the two teams meet.
“It’s your rival,” Ross said. “I always say there’s not a lot of soccer that’s played. I think it’s a lot of, like, people slamming into each other, kicking a ball deep, just trying to kind of scratch one across. And usually when Hickman and Rock Bridge play, there’s not a ton of, like, great, great, beautiful soccer being played. And I think that’s kind of, at least for me, the allure of the rivalry game.”
Tuesday night’s game was definitely physical as well as fast-paced, filled with almost as much quick footwork as clumsily cleared balls.
Hickman was the first on the board not even two minutes into the game, scoring on a low shot from across the goal by sophomore Leif Kammer that found the bottom right side of the net, past Rock Bridge keeper Dylan Foote.
“We’re giving up too many goals this year off just silly mistakes, and that was an instance right there,” Wittenborn said. “That was an easily avoidable goal.”
The Bruins (3-4, 2-0 Central Missouri Activities Conference) didn’t let the goal get to them, though, and Johnson’s goal came just minutes later. In the 25th minute, sophomore Sam McCrary scored what would end up becoming the winning goal when he found the upper right corner of the net.
“It’s frustrating to give up a lead that quickly, but I also think it’s something that we got to expect,” Ross said. “Not that we’re going to expect to be giving up leads, but it’s kind of ‘expect the unexpected.’ As soon as you feel safe, you’re probably losing.”
Both teams would wind up scoreless in the second half. Hickman seemed to get a second burst of energy in the final minutes of the game, giving Foote a run for his money as the Kewpies first sent a bullet of a free kick his way and then nearly scored on a shot that was only just deflected with a bicycle kick at the goal line.
“That’s just what a rivalry is,” Wittenborn said. “It’s always madness in the box at some point.”
While Ross was impressed with his team’s final minutes, he said the Kewpies (2-3, 1-3) need to find a way to extend that sort of energy throughout the whole game.
“If we have that kind of energy throughout most of the game, and that is the rule instead of the exception, then we’re in really good shape, and I think things on the field will take care of themselves,” he said.
Though Johnson’s celebration was the only penalized moment of the match, the tension between the two teams — whether friendly or unfriendly — felt like it could have been cut with a knife. Wittenborn called his team’s behavior “unacceptable” following the game.
Ross said he takes it as his responsibility as coach to get into the weeds for the players if needed so that they can stay out of them.
“I think the best thing we can learn is composure,” Ross said. “We’ve got to understand that if I’m yelling, if the referee’s yelling, if the other players are yelling, if the fans are yelling, if the reporters are screaming, that the players still control what’s going on out there. And they have to keep their heads, and they can’t buy into all the extracurriculars.”
Rock Bridge travels to Mexico to play the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. Thursday. Hickman next plays in the Parkway Tournament this Friday and Saturday.