HS Boys Soccer: Highlanders Clinch Inaugural Woodlands Derby and District Title with Win Over College Park

By: Jake Wilson
| Published 03/05/2024


THE WOODLANDS, TX -- The Woodlands Highlanders (17-1-3) clinched the 2024 District Title after defeating the rival College Park Cavaliers (15-2-2) in a 2-0 affair.

The Highlanders escaped a close matchup against the Cavs in a 1-0 game earlier in the season. The win situated The Woodlands as the top team in the district and as favorites to take home the first-ever Woodlands Derby.

College Park’s game plan from the opening kick was to apply oppressive pressure against the Highlander backline. In under three minutes of play, the Cavs already had a shot on goal, and their presence immediately set the tone for the match.

In an exclusive interview with The Woodlands Online Sports, Highlander Head Coach Jason Fanning spoke about his expectations for College Park coming into the match.

“I’m not surprised because, in a game like this, there is always going to be a lot of energy,” said Fanning. “[The Cavaliers] were looking to get points and solidify their spot, and the only way they can do that is by beating us.”

In response to the pressure put on by their rivals, the Highlanders controlled their possessions to the best of their ability. Smart passes methodically worked the ball past defenders and into the open field for attacks.

Shots began to soar toward the goal from the Highlander attackers. After a miss wide to the right, dispossession in the midfield set up Emilio Bladeras for a shot that found the back of the net in the seventh minute.

Suddenly, being down caught the Cavaliers off-guard from their plan at the start of the game. A heightened pressure was put on the already blistering attack to generate a significant enough push to break through the Highlander backline.

Increased speed from the Cavaliers led to mistakes in the open field instead of a quick response.

With their opponents out of sorts, the Highlanders capitalized by countering the fast-paced Cavalier team.

A free-kick resulted from a successful Highlander counter, and the ball swerved toward the Cavalier goal for the second time in the half. Following a deflection from the Cavalier keeper, Aaron Keating belted the rebound into the net for a quick 2-0 lead for The Woodlands.

The effective strategy of feeding on counters instead of sitting back in defense worked perfectly for the Highlanders.

The Cavaliers continued to search for cracks in the Highlander defense but were constantly turned away. Throw-ins, corners, and crosses into the box were all ineffective in breaking through the defense.

Selective passes and protective dribbling allowed The Woodlands to maintain possession for the remainder of the half. No promising attacks from the Cavs amounted to any traction being gained, and the Highlanders were rewarded for their efforts with a 2-0 lead going into the half.

“There were a couple of moments when I felt like we could have communicated better,” said Fanning following his team’s first half. “A quality program like College Park is going to make it difficult, so I never felt like we had it locked in.”

Despite the issues the team may have faced during the first half, the Highlanders continued to put on a defensive clinic as the second half began.

Even with the Cavaliers ramping up their attack to a higher degree, the backline and goalkeeping refused to show any signs of breaking.

Withering attacks from a desperate opponent continued to be pushed to the side in The Woodlands’ effort to keep a clean sheet. Effective communication and heads-up play ensured the entire defense was on the same page and that nothing slipped through the cracks.

“I feel like there are certainly things that we can tighten up,” said Fanning in his defense. “But in the critical moment, we performed at our expectation, and I expect nothing less from a backline as solid as that.”

A lack of overexertion on the Highlander’s behalf meant the team was never in a position where their goal was in significant jeopardy. Each time the Cavs mounted an effort that aimed toward the goal, a shift from the midfielders or a savvy play from the defenders kept the effort ineffective.

No amount of late-game pressure from College Park managed to break through the impenetrable Highlander defense as the seconds continued to tick away.

A late possession from the Highlanders milked the last seconds off the clock, and full-time sounded with the team clinching the inaugural Woodlands Derby and 2024 District title with their 2-0 win.

Even with the trophy and title secured, the game-to-game results remain an afterthought in The Woodlands’ quest to return to the postseason.

“We’ve never focused on the results of games,” said Fanning. “We’re not looking at the scoreboard. We’re looking at if we are playing the style of soccer that is going to give us success over the duration of the season.”

The Woodlands’ success throughout the season is undeniable, and their hard work has been rewarded with back-to-back district titles.

The march for an unbeaten district run will continue for the Highlanders against the Caney Creek Panthers, while College Park will look to rebound against the struggling Oak Ridge War Eagles on Friday.

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