Since 2012 — when the 11th Region in boys’ soccer began to better resemble basketball’s 11th Region — only two teams have represented the region in the state tournament: Henry Clay and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
If the 11th Region is the Southeastern Conference football of Kentucky boys’ soccer, as some around Lexington like to profess, then Dunbar is its Alabama and Henry Clay its Florida.
Despite the absurd depth of the region — one could argue this is something of a “down year” and still six of its teams are in the Maher Rankings’ top 25 — the Blue Devils and Bulldogs have separated themselves from the pack. Impressive challengers have stepped up: Lafayette last season rode a strong senior class to arguably its best year ever only to come up short; Madison Central has proven formidable in recent years but hasn’t been able to reach the finals; Woodford County under Fonyam Atanga has gotten to the big game but been unable to win it.
Continuity plays a massive role for Dunbar and Henry Clay. Dunbar’s had the same head coach — Todd Bretz, the state’s all-time wins leader — since the school opened in 1990, and assistant coach John O’Hara is in his 24th season helping the team. Henry Clay head coach Jason Behler was an assistant with the program for 13 years before assuming the reins from Tim Bernardi in 2016. Behler’s playing background also provided a strong foundation; he graduated in 1999 from Covington Catholic, where he played under John Horton — the man Bretz passed for the all-time wins record.
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The list of final scores between Dunbar and Henry Clay over the last five years almost reads like a line of binary code: 1-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 2-1, 2-1, 1-1, 4-0, 3-0.
That’s six one-goal decisions, a tie and two blowouts. Dunbar can claim six of the eight wins in that span, as well as the latest victory in the series, which came at Henry Clay on Tuesday.
The final score in that one? One to nothing, of course. The goal came on a free kick by junior Eddy Andrade after another junior, Pedro Jimenez, drew a yellow-card foul on a Henry Clay defender.
That was in the fourth minute of action. The rest of the game was played mostly away from the nets, each team coming up with just a few good shot opportunities (including a potential game-tying rebound that Henry Clay would have loved to have had another crack at) the rest of the way.
“All in all, both teams didn’t create many chances,” Henry Clay’s Behler said. “Both teams battled in the midfield. Box-to-box is where most of the game was played, not in the boxes.”
Behler said Tuesday’s game was the first time this year that the Blue Devils hadn’t “destroyed a team in the midfield.” Dunbar’s middle line was stout, and Henry Clay had a starter (Phillip Allison) sidelined with a broken hand suffered against Tates Creek.
Allison brings a “work ethic and level of calm” to the midfield that wasn’t necessarily lacking against Dunbar, Behler said, but his consistency was missed.
“He never plays outside of himself and just works his butt off for 80 minutes, and we’re a different team without him,” Behler said.
Dunbar keeper Josh Sydlik, a senior who made first-team All-City last year, stood out for the Bulldogs in a contest that “was about as close as you can get to a postseason game during the regular season,” Bretz said.
“He’s been a little banged up but he’s starting to get healthy again. When he’s on, he’s tough to beat,” Bretz said with a grin.
Coming into the season it was expected for Dunbar and Henry Clay to be the leaders in the city and 11th Region. Those expectations have played out on the field so far — Henry Clay’s loss to Dunbar was the first suffered by either of the two teams in 2017 — but what each looks like in October won’t be what they looked like the last week of August.
“It’s early. We both returned several good, core players and that helps you early on,” Bretz said. “Now it’s ‘Where do you go from here?’ They’ve got the same core from last year that did really well and probably should’ve beat us in the regional tournament. Where we go from now is gonna be the big question.”
Behler spoke in a similar refrain after Dunbar beat the Blue Devils on Tuesday.
“It is what it is. If you played that game three more times, it would be three different results. Probably would have a win for us and a tie,” Behler said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot (of difference) between these two teams.”
One has ended the other’s season the last four years. Right now, there’s little reason to believe that won’t be the case in 2017.