The last time Henry Clay and Paul Laurence Dunbar met, the Bulldogs knocked off the Blue Devils for a berth in the state championship. That was Oct. 25, 2014.
It was understandable that Henry Clay would bring a physical game to Dunbar after waiting 10 months for payback on its home field Tuesday night. The aggression showed all night, especially on defense, but a small breakdown was all it took for the Blue Devils to drop their second straight in the rivalry, 1-0.
Ricky Clemente got loose for a goal in the 55th minute of the game — an opportunity Dunbar Coach Todd Bretz even seemed a bit shocked by — and it proved to be the difference maker in what could be a preview of another 11th Region championship.
"It was a throw in so I don't know if they weren't quite set yet," Bretz said of the play that set up Clemente. "They marked him so well the entire game. They marked everyone so well the entire game that I'm not quite sure what happened on that one."
Clemente, a senior, shed some light on the game's lone goal.
"They were playing great defense," Clemente said. "It was a good ball from Jack Sheroan. I just slipped, put it right through the defenders, took a good touch and finished it."
It was a rare shot on goal for Clemente, who faced pressure from multiple Blue Devils most of the night and was closely marked by Aime Mabika, a 6-foot-6 senor midfielder committed to UK.
"Live for those types of games," Mabika tweeted after the loss. "We played really well, but credit to Dunbar for being more ruthless."
The Bulldogs were ruthless, especially around the net when it mattered most. Henry Clay's speed on the outside earned it many more shot attempts than Dunbar, but the Bulldogs stepped up and made key blocks almost every time.
Those big plays on defense were to the aid of keeper Travis Shuler, who said Dunbar was well aware of the energy the revenge-minded Blue Devils brought to the table and they had to match it to have a shot.
Harrison Grabmeyer, a junior on the back line, thought the defense played its best game of the season against a rugged opponent.
"We stayed organized, we talked to each other and just clicked," Grabmeyer said. "Henry Clay's a very physical team in the air so we knew we were going to have to win the balls in the air. Just put a body on them if you can't win it and just meet up there. You gotta be physical with them."
Chris Hunt came closest to reaching the net for Henry Clay, but in the second half saw at least three shots narrowly sail by or over the goal.
"We got very lucky in a lot of situations," Bretz said with a laugh. "The ball bounced the right way for us."
Blue Devils Coach Tim Bernardi was complimentary of Clemente afterward. He also spoke about Henry Clay's missed chances.
"Ricky's a dangerous player," Bernardi said. "For him, just the slight narrowest opening he's gonna capitalize and finish. He's a great player.
"I felt like we generated enough opportunities to win the game and we weren't able to find the back of the net. He sprung open and got the look."