It took all Clarence could muster to outlast Williamsville North in a pair of one-goal regular season wins. So to create a two-goal cushion after scoring early in the second half of the Section VI Class AA final between the two teams gave the Red Devils some relief.
In a battle of Class AA champions of the past two seasons, Clarence scored what would be the game-winner in the final minutes of the first half, added that all-important second goal less than seven minutes into the second and then held on to defeat North, 2-0, on a rainy Saturday night at Sweet Home High School.
Clarence (17-1-1) repeated as champion and has won the title seven times since 2008. North (14-4) was the champion in 2015.
The Red Devils will play in the Far West Regional 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Spencerport High School.
"The two-goal lead was huge because North has got a lot of talent, so it was going to be tough to hold them down," Clarence coach Mike Silverstein said. "The second goal was big and we kept battling them the whole time."
In the regular season, the teams played a 1-0 game that went to overtime and a 2-1 final in which North led by a goal early on.
"That second goal was vital. It gave us that cushion to see the game out from there," said Clarence junior forward Quinn Neelon, who scored the goal on a penalty kick. "The defense did an excellent job of clearing the balls out tonight and keeping us in control of the game."
Clarence sophomore Taha Ahmed opened the scoring with a shot from about 15 yards out on a rebound with 3:50 left in first half. North goalie Donavan Reed had made a save and punched the ball forward onto the feet of Ahmed, who beat him with a blistering shot to the top right corner. It was the forward's ninth goal of the season.
Neelon extended the Red Devils' lead to 2-0 scoring his 14th goal of the season with 33:38 left in the game. He broke by a defender and was one-on-one with the goaltender, who made contact about the time he was shooting the ball. Neelon was awarded the penalty kick and sent the ball into the upper right corner of the net.
Clarence's senior-led backline was anchored by Bobby O'Brien, who Silverstein called one of the most intelligent players he's ever coached. Silverstein added the team knew it was talented on offense this year so it's been focused on playing team defense.
"The press from the top has been great," he said. "Our backline has only given North one goal in three games. That says something."
Clarence goalie Kenny Suen made three stops. The Red Devils have allowed only seven goals all season.
Williamsville North's leading scorer Justin Bonetto hit the post with just over 25 minutes to play in the game. Late in the game, North defenders made two stops on Clarence shots going into the net to keep the game close.
Silverstein said this has been the type of team ready to work hard each day, which has helped it overcome some injuries throughout the season. He pointed out it's a pride thing when it comes to Clarence soccer.
"The camaraderie has been there since the beginning of the season," he said. "They love the tradition and they love to know the pressure is on them because they come ready to play."