When Pa Lamin Fofana touches a soccer ball, the change in atmosphere is tangible. Opposing keepers tend to get a pit in their stomachs, defenders take notice, and fans cling to the edge of their seats, knowing a scintillating shot or knee-buckling maneuver may be right around the corner. The freshman sensation didn't disappoint in the biggest game of his career thus far, sparking North Stafford's offense with two second-half goals in the Wolverines' 3-1 win over Riverbend in the Northwest Regional championship Friday.
North Stafford head coach Iric Bressler had words of praise for his young talent saying, "We have a kid named Fofana, and he's a blessing. He moved right in behind Giant and that's our area. He's had a couple rough edges, and he's had to learn the rules the hard way. But he's a great kid, and he's the most talented soccer player I've ever coached. He'll draw three, maybe four defenders. And the killer is, he'll beat them all."
Senior forward Matt Hite struck first for the Wolverines in the 30th minute. Off a corner, North Stafford was able to create traffic in front of Riverbend keeper Joey Knocke, and Hite capitalized, burying the deflection.
Five minutes later Riverbend answered. Jason Cullenen sent a beautifully-driven free kick into the box and standout North Stafford goalie Ryan Husted made a rare mistake, mistiming his jump and allowing Chris Greene to head it into the back of the net.
"I went to one of my assistants tonight and said, 'Thank God he made that mistake tonight and not Tuesday,'" remarked Bressler about his keeper's first-half gaffe. "But he's rock-solid. He'll be all-state."
The scoring could have been far more frequent if not for the stellar play of both keepers. Riverbend goalie Joey Knocke was under constant assault early on, displaying strong hands and making Kahn-like saves from close range. North Stafford standout Ryan Husted faced fewer threats, but cut off several potential crosses and directed his defense with ease.
In the second half, North Stafford began to control the possession game more and more. The plethora of offensive opportunities was all Fofana needed to take over. In the 44th minute, the freshman scored his first goal of the day, splitting the Bear defense and firing a right-footed laser across his body. The ball arched towards the upper-90, leaving Knocke with no real chance for a save.
With North up 2-1, they exploited the possession game more and more, while at the same time sending longballs to their strikers. Riverbend managed to mount offensive pressure, led mostly by the efforts of UVA commit Ryan Zinkham. Each time the Bears were turned away, either by outstanding gets by Wolverine defenders or by Husted, who had a strong second half.
Fofana put the exclamation mark on his afternoon in the final minute of the game. After being fed a pass by Justin Verga, Fofana outran the Riverbend defense, setting up a one-on-one with keeper Knocke. With one more touch he was past the goalie, and made a controlled finish into the open net.
Pa Lamin surprised even his coach. "That second goal, I'm thinking 'he's crossing it,'" said Bressler. "He's not crossing it; he has one thing on his mind when he gets in the 18'. And I've allowed him to do that."
"I'm feeling proud of my teammates," said Fofana after the game. "We are playing as a family, and we don't let anybody down; I love my team."
Both teams move on to the AAA state tournament next Tuesday, when North Stafford will host Thomas Dale, and Riverbend will travel to Deep Run.
Bressler has seen enough this season to know the potential for a historic season is out there. "I like our chances against anybody. We have good team speed and we move the ball where we want."