SOUTH CHINA — It begins in the air, continues along the ground and, if all goes well, it finishes in the net.

The Erskine Academy boys soccer team, buoyed by senior captain Brock Glidden’s midfield presence and some fantastic finishing on the top end, remained unbeaten with a 2-0 win over Gardiner in a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B game Friday afternoon. Seniors Michael Sprague and Brady Studley each scored for the Eagles (5-0-1), who got a nine-save shutout from junior goalkeeper David McGraw.

Erskine showed a commitment toward winning every ball it could in the air right out of the gate, a trait that has served the program well over the last few seasons.

“It’s mostly mindset,” Glidden said. “You’ve got to be confident driving through it, like ‘I’m going to win this. Nothing’s going to stop me.’ If you start out winning balls early, that boosts the confidence of the rest of the team. … The other team becomes almost hesitant.”

“It becomes a team mindset. If you only have one or two players with that mindset, you’re not going to be successful,” Erskine head coach Carrie Larrabee said. “It really is us, as a team, taking on that approach that we’re going to win these balls. Everybody’s got to buy onto that — you have players like Brock that really are just leaders by example, and then we as a team try to approach it as a team.

“Those players that are naturally like that are working to make those around them better.”

The early persistence paid off when Erskine took a 1-0 lead through Sprague, after Gardiner (0-3-1) failed to clear a corner kick in the 24th minute. The ball found its way onto Alex Cleaves’ foot centrally at the top of the 18-yard box, and he turned the ball back out wide right for the running Sprague, who cracked his bid inside the far post.

Gardiner didn’t recover from the early deficit, at least not in the first half.

“It’s more about challenging, not so much winning (balls),” Gardiner coach Nic Wallace said. “It’s a mentality of you want to be better than someone else. It’s a mentality where we’ve always wanted to challenge, but now we have to start winning some of those. We’ve done a lot more one-on-one challenge-type drills in practice. It’s a point of emphasis for us. If we don’t have the ball, we can’t control it.”

For Erskine, controlling the ball wasn’t the problem in the first half. Whether it was Glidden, Cleaves, center back Sage Hapgood-Belanger or any of the other Erskine midfielders, they were winning balls and setting the attack in quick motion to the wide areas.

“We like to keep the ball on the ground, instead of playing boot-ball,” Sprague said. “We have the strikers and the wings always pushing up high, and it works very well.”

Gardiner was better in the second half, not allowing Erskine to win things so easily in the midfield. But a breakdown in the 54th minute allowed the Eagles to catch the Tigers on the counterattack. Junior Ethan Hammond chased down a long ball in the right corner and crossed immediately for Studley, whose angled run to the near post was finished with a brilliant one-touch that Gardiner keeper Alic Shorey (11 saves) had little chance on.

For a Gardiner team that’s scored only four goals in four games, the two-goal deficit faced over the final half-hour was enormous.

The Tigers had two point-blank chances from senior Garrett Lunt and junior captain Casey Bourque in the 79th minute, but McGraw made a pair of leaping saves to keep the ball out and preserve the blanking.

The dirty work done by Erskine early in the game paid off with plenty of cushion to work with.

“If I win (the ball) and get it forward, (the attackers) can handle themselves really well,” Glidden said. “I just like to follow them up, because if they miss I can try and get the rebound. If they make it, I can be the first one right there to give them a high-five.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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