Henry Clay expected a physical game at Mercer County in the first round of the state tournament.
And it got one.
Players hit the ground on nearly every possession. Fouls were frequent by both sides. Three yellow cards and a red card were issued to the Titans.
In the midst of the frenzy, Braxton Burton came up with two first-half goals, and the Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals with a 2-1 victory.
Burton's first score started in the right backfield. Aime Mabika delivered a long, cross-field ball to the left side of the pitch, and Josh Strange reeled it in. Strange sent a cross to the front of the goal, where Burton headed it in to put Henry Clay up 1-0 with five minutes to play in the first half.
"It was brilliant," Burton said of the sequence. "I was in the right place at the right time."
His second score came barely two minutes later. Burton quickly placed a strong-side dish from Nick Whitehouse into the weak side of the net to give Henry Clay a 2-0 halftime edge.
Burton called Whitehouse's assist "phenomenal" and was again modest about his approach.
"I saw the goalie standing and saw the open space, so I just took it," he said.
The Titans were more aggressive on offense in the second half and drew a foul inside the box in the opening minutes. Garrett Dean delivered a penalty ball past Henry Clay keeper Donovan Gregory to cut the lead to one.
Mercer County couldn't build on the goal and created only two more shots the rest of the way. It played down a man in the final minutes after Sawyer Ransdell was issued his second yellow card (he made contact with the keeper), resulting in an automatic red.
Blue Devils Coach Tim Bernardi said his team was ready for a physical game despite having just one full day of rest after defeating Dunbar in the 11th Region finals on Saturday. The Titans had been off since Thursday.
"We were just trying to keep our composure," Bernardi said, "and I feel like in the second half we lost it a little bit. Especially when we gave up the PK.
"But then I felt in the last 15 minutes we kinda regained it, took the winds out of their sails and gained some momentum in our favor."
Henry Clay, winners of 18 straight, meetS Perry County Central at Lafayette at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Commodores (17-2-1) defeated South Laurel 4-1 on Monday.
HENRY CLAY 2, MERCER COUNTY 1
KHSAA state tournament, first round at Mercer Co.
G—HC: Burton 2 (35', 37'). MC: Dean (PK 43').
GK—HC: Gregory. MC: Phillips.
Records: Henry Clay 21-2-1, Mercer Co. 21-4-1.