SOUTH CHINA — Timing is everything in high school soccer. Erskine Academy’s rise from a No. 10 seed to its first state championship game appearance now stands as indisputable proof.

The Eagles face defending state champion Yarmouth in the Class B championship Saturday (5:30 p.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland) hardened by the lessons of a disappointing end to last season and determined to make the most of what everyone but them sees as an unlikely playoff run.

Senior-laden Erskine emerged from a mid-season three-game losing streak with a new perspective on how to become a team and, ultimately, champions. It took that new perspective on the road for four straight playoff games against the No. 7, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 1 seeds in the Class B North tournament.

“Beginning of the season I don’t think anybody talked about Erskine,” senior goalkeeper Denver Cullivan said. “But I think we’ve proven ourselves as a whole.”

Qualifying for the tournament is virtually a given at Erskine, a perennial Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference power. In 2014, the Eagles went 11-1-2 and earned the No. 4 seed in what was then Eastern B. Further, Erskine was expected to challenge for the regional title but those hopes collapsed when it got upset by No. 12 Medomak Valley in the quarterfinals. The sting of the loss subsided, the message that it sent did not.

The Eagles started this season 4-0-0 and didn’t allow a goal when they reached the iron of their schedule. Oceanside handed them their first loss, 1-0, and sent them into a bit of an emotional tailspin.

A 2-0 home loss to Winslow followed, then a 3-1 loss at Maranacook. The Eagles played one of their best games to that point of the season against the two-time defending Class C champion Black Bears, but they’d failed to collect some much-needed Heal points that a win over one of those three teams would have provided.

It was at that point that coach Phil Hubbard reminded his team to look at the big picture.

“We knew we needed to get through our lumps to figure out where things come together as a team,” Hubbard said. “Once we figured that, it didn’t matter what seed we were. We knew we were good enough to beat anybody. But it was going to come down to when we got hot, when we’d come together as a group cohesively.”

Many of the players had been playing for Hubbard since before high school on travel teams, so they knew what their coach expected.

“Everything we’ve done with Phil ever since we were little, like the foot skills, the chemistry, that’s all been there. But the heart and the drive and that goal we all set out to do, we all kind of lost sight of that,” senior defender Joshua Reed said. “That was our wake-up call.”

They put the losing streak behind them with a 10-1 win over Belfast and went on to win six of their last seven to finish 10-4-0. The lone loss in that stretch — 2-1 to Maranacook — showed the Eagles that they were well on their way to becoming the team they hoped to be.

“Everybody started to do their job and only focused on their job. Once that happens, it all works together,” senior striker Luke Peabody said.

For it to all work together at Erskine, it has to start with defense.

“That’s our spirit. Our drive comes from the defense,” senior midfielder Jake Suga said.

“It starts with Brock Glidden and Caleb Barden and we’ve got two pretty tough kids on the sideline with Chance Reed and Eric Wormell,” said senior striker Trevor Hubbard, Phil Hubbard’s son. “And then we’ve got one of the biggest keepers in the state of Maine in Denver.”

“The iron curtain of soccer,” Peabody said of Erskine’s back line.

Barden, a senior, has another nickname for the unit.

“We call ourselves ‘The Brothers of Defense,’ me and (Cullivan) probably being the two dads,” Barden said. “We’re closely knit.”

Led by Hubbard and Peabody up top, the Eagles can tear apart opposing defenses, too.

Hubbard backed up junior midfielder Grayson Petty’s goal with two insurance strikes in Erskine’s 3-0 preliminary round win over Mt. Desert Island.

Next came what they still consider their biggest test, a quarterfinal game at No. 2 Winslow.

“When we beat MDI and knew we were going to play Winslow, maybe some of us were scared. But I think it just clicked,” Peabody said.

“If you want to talk about classic playoff battle to the end, that was battle to the end,” Trevor Hubbard added.

Indeed.

The Eagles took a 2-0 lead, only to watch Winslow rally to tie it in the second half. After surviving two sudden death overtimes, the game went to penalty kicks. Senior backup goalie/defender Takoda McGraw took over for Cullivan in net and made a crucial stop. Then with darkness falling, Glidden, a sophomore, drilled the game-winner in the second round of kicks.

The Eagles rode the emotional high from that win for the long road trip to third-seeded Presque Isle. Cullivan made five saves to keep the game scoreless and, again, the game went to penalty kicks. Once again, McGraw took over in net and made the necessary saves as Suga, Petty, sophomore Alex Cleaves and Barden with the game-winner, scored to send them to the regional final.

Phil Hubbard made some crucial offensive and defensive adjustments for the final against defending regional champion Ellsworth, the top seed. Cullivan and the defense neutralized Ellsworth’s biggest weapon, the flip throws of Lukas Firestone, and Peabody and Trevor Hubbard scored to secure the dramatic 2-1 win.

Now Erskine (14-4-0) faces its biggest challenge, defending state champion Yarmouth (15-1-1).

“They’re going to be very skilled. They’re going to spread the field real wide and try to attack with speed,” Phil Hubbard said. “They’ve got some phenomenal players. They’re state champs from last year and they’re there for a reason.”

The pressure may be on the favored Clippers to go back-to-back, but the Eagles aren’t just happy to have made it to Portland.

“If we play an extremely good game and they play an extremely good game and they win, hats off to them, because they’re one of the most skilled teams in the state, if not the most skilled team in the state,” Trevor Hubbard said. “But we’ve got more we want to do.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @Rawmaterial33


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