HAMBURG - Prior to each game this season, but especially over the last few weeks, the Maple Grove boys soccer team has grouped together on the sideline to raise their hands together and shout the team-rallying cry of "Family."
It's a closeness that's been crucial for the squad during their dream-like run to a first sectional title since 2010, but it was more important than ever on Friday evening when things didn't go as well.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, each Maple Grove player leaned on one another as they endured an awards ceremony not for themselves, but for their opponent. Williamson topped the Red Dragons, 3-0, to capture the Far West Regional title and a place in next weekend's New York State Public High School Athletic Association state tournament.
"I'm really just so proud of them," Maple Grove coach Kevin Beaton said following the defeat. "We really learned a lot. The seniors did a great job, and I think for the juniors and down you can't match this kind of experience.
"They're a little bit sad now, but hopefully by the time they get home they'll be over it."
With the victory, Williamson improved to 19-0-2 on the year and avenged a loss by penalty kicks at the Far West Regional a year ago. Maple Grove, meanwhile, ranked No. 10 in the state by the New York State Sportswriters Association, lost just its second game all season and finishes with a solid 18-2-2 mark.
After weathering some heavy offensive pressure by the Marauders in the first half - the Section 5 champions fired a whopping 11 shots, though just four were on goal - the floodgates finally opened midway through the second when they tallied all three of their scores over a nine-minute span.
Williamson's leading scorer, Tom Ferland, struck first when he held off the physical defense of Maple Grove's Andrew Lindstrom, finding just enough open space inside the area to send a shot into the lower right corner of the net.
"We had a little breakdown," Beaton said of what would turn out to be the game-winning tally, "and once they scored that first one they took the momentum and (you know the rest). It's what always happens."
The Marauders, visibly enlivened by the decisive score, wasted little time building a cushion as Ferland took a pass from teammate Josh McIntosh down the left side and buried his shot into the upper right corner for the 2-0 lead with 21 minutes remaining.
Five minutes later it was McIntosh's turn as he deftly maneuvered the ball right up the middle of the field, rounding a trio of Maple Grove defenders before side-footing the ball past Richardson for the third and final goal.
"The teams just keep getting better and better," Beaton said. "We were just a little outgunned today. Maybe if we'd had a score - we had a couple chances earlier - that might of changed things."
A game-changing chance did come for the Red Dragons early in the contest when Erik Olson took a free kick from 20 yards out that hit the crossbar, but the strike bounced away. From there, Maple Grove struggled to get any type of passing or possession game going against what was a quick and tenacious Williamson squad.
"It was tough distributing the ball today," Beaton said. "(Williamson) put a lot of pressure on us, and as one of the kids said, they were really ganging up on the ball in the midfield. They're quick, they're skilled and we had no time to pass."
Unable to mount any significant offensive pressure on opposing goalkeeper Mitchell Steurrys (five saves), and with the Marauders controlling possession in the Red Dragons' end, it was only a matter of time before Williamson found the range with its own opportunities and solved goalie Kyle Richardson, who had already made a number of solid saves in the first half to keep the game scoreless.
"Kyle's got a lot of shutouts, but didn't see a lot of shots (during the season)," Beaton said of his junior keeper, who made seven saves. "I was worried about that as we advanced, but he's a gritty guy and he really played well today and over the past four or five games."
Despite the setback this time around, Beaton vowed that his team would be back on the big stage once again in the coming years.
"I told (the Section 6 chairman) that we're going to be back," he said with a smile. "A lot of our younger guys learned a lot over the past three weeks, we've got some other young kids coming up and our coaching trio will be good, too, so the future is coming."