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Moments after FPC lost to Mandarin, 4-3, Wednesday night in the Class 5A regional quarterfinals, Bulldogs coach Noah Braun stared at the field with his arms crossed.
As his tie waved through the wind and the crowd filed out of Sal Campanella Memorial Stadium, he had no regrets.
“Mandarin is a very good team, there’s no doubt about it,” said Braun, as his third season came to a close. “Individually, they have more talent. But I think we have more heart than they do. You can see that when we battled back while dealing with adversity.”
The adversity for FPC (15-3-2) came just 13 minutes into the game when Mandarin striker Kacper Grzeszczak finished off a one-two combination to give the Mustangs an early 1-0 lead.
About 20 minutes into the game, and with Mandarin (19-3-2) controlling the midfield, Braun moved freshman Stanley Joseph up top and slid Johnny Osorio back into the midfield. The move nearly paid off immediately as Joseph got in on a breakaway a few moments later, but his cheeky chip shot was parried away by Mandarin’s keeper.
At the other end of the field a few minutes later, FPC keeper Austin Davis came off his line to gather a through ball, but it squirted out of his hands, and Grzeszczak curled his shot inside the near post of an empty net to give Mandarin a 2-0 lead.
In the 27th minute, FPC’s Martin Maschio injected some life into the Bulldogs after cutting a defender and drilling a left-footed shot into the far side-netting, making it 2-1.
After more end-to-end play, Grzeszczak capped off his hat trick when he tucked away a penalty kick with about nine minutes remaining in the first half after a Mandarin player was tackled inside FPC’s penalty box.
FPC trailed at halftime, 3-1. During the 10-minute break, Braun had one message for his players: “I got into them at halftime,” he said. “I challenged them a little bit — I told them to leave it all on the field.”
Just a minute into the second half, Drew Jones spun a searching ball to the back stick, and a wide open Maschio connected on a header back across the goal and into the back of the net.
But Mandarin responded quickly when Rijad Kobiljar struck a shot that grazed along the grass from about 18 yards off a set piece to give Mandarin a 4-2 lead.
Just three minutes later, Jones uncorked a screamer from about 35 yards that knuckled over the Mandarin keeper’s head to cut the lead to 4-3.
FPC pushed more attackers forward toward the end of the game, but with about nine minutes to go, Osorio was sent off after receiving his second yellow yard.
“(Getting sent off) was Johnny’s fault,” Braun said. “At that point, I was planning on going to a three-back system, and we still did.”
But down to 10 men, FPC couldn’t bag the equalizer. For the second year in a row, the Bulldogs were knocked out of the state playoffs by Mandarin.
There was no question whether Braun’s players gave it their all: “Absolutely,” he said.
After the game, Braun didn’t make any excuses for his players despite several questionable calls by the referees. It appeared as if FPC should have had two penalty kicks because of hand balls in the box, but they were never called.
“Not making excuses at all, but for the group of players that we have, they battled back,” Braun said. “It is what it is. I think that you can say they gave everything they had.”
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