By game time, the stands at Howard High were overflowing. The standing-room-only soccer crowd of 2,500 gathered to watch the event of the year last Saturday night.
When the game ended, the fans had seen their money's worth, and Oakland Mills had lived up to its pre-season billing as the top team in the county, and maybe the state.
The Scorpions (12-2) beat Centennial, 1-0, for their 10th shutout this year. It was their eighth straight win -- all of them "must" wins.
And with the victory came the Region I, Class 3A soccer championship, and redemption for a season that at one point came unraveled following the 15-day suspension of three starting players for drinking beer at a school dance.
The victory climaxed a long comeback road for Oakland Mills, which faced elimination from the playoffs ever since its sixth game of the season, when it lost to Howard, 3-2. That was the second loss for a team that had been touted in pre-season as almost unbeatable.
"We've faced sudden death every game since the sixth game, because we knew one more loss would eliminate us," Scorpions coach Don Shea said.
Malcolm Gillian was moved from midfield to starting forward in the seventh game. Since then, Gillian has scored 11 goals, including five game-winners. Before then he had no goals.
And it was Gillian who scored the winning goal Saturday, a 10-yard boot to the right of goalie John Bratiotis into the lower corner in the 11th minute.
Gillian's opportunity was created when Clint Peay dribbled down the right wing and hit a hard shot that was deflected. Another shot was deflected before Gillian finally scored.
Gillian was surprised that his was the only goal of the game.
"I thought we'd get more, but they defended us well," he said. "They played much tougher this time than the first time."
Oakland Mills won the regular season meeting, 4-2.
Centennial (11-2-1), a team that had played systematically sound soccer all season in mowing down an impressive schedule of opponents, came prepared for a defensive struggle.
Coach Bill Stara's game plan was: keep it low-scoring; mark the forwards, Gillian and Ike Roh; pressure long throw-ins by putting two defenders on the thrower; force Richmond into bad punts by putting two defenders on him; and score a goal.
The plan was largely successful except Centennial didn't score and Oakland Mills did.
Stara gambled that Scorpion midfield star Peay would come up unlucky, and that's what happened.
Peay played well but missed two shots he ordinarily would make, including one to an open net from 10 yards out in the 38th minute.
Centennial keeper John Bratiotis dove and smothered a shot, and then lost control of the ball to Peay, who had plenty of time but kicked high.
"If we had marked Clint, we would have been playing five defenders, and that would have weakened our midfield too much," Stara said.
Centennial also missed scoring chances. Josh Baer just missed wide left from inside the 18-yard line in the 30th minute. He had Scorpion keeper Tony Richmond totally beaten by banging a ball off a defender and quickly breaking wide open in the middle.
In the 44th minute, Todd Downen missed a shot at the far post off a corner kick.
Richmond, hampered by a sprained ankle, was unable to run around the two defenders on punts, so he felt the pressure with a total of at least four short kicks to the sides.
"They tried coming after me, and I didn't know what to do about it," Richmond said. "They upset me."
"I didn't know at the time that Richmond had a bad ankle," Stara said.
From the 44th to the 54th minutes in the second half, Centennial's offense pressured Oakland Mills with six shots, forcing Richmond to make five saves.
During that time, Scorpion coach Shea decided he had seen enough, and that one goal would have to be enough.
"We had outshot them 11-2 in the first half and still had only one goal.
That made me decide not to risk giving up a tying goal going for the second goal, and I dropped Clint (Peay) back to sweeper," Shea said. That was the 49th minute, in the middle of an offensive barrage by Centennial.
Oakland Mills had blown a lead in its 3-2 loss to Howard in the regular season.
Five minutes after Peay moved back, Centennial's 10-minute offensive threat was finished.
From the 60th to the 63rd minute Oakland Mills applied extreme offensive pressure on Centennial, but the Eagles defense, led by sweeper Teddy Oh, held.
In the 72nd minute, Stara prepared his team for one last offensive push.
He had given two key offensive players, Rogers Lewis and Robert Blanco, a short breather, and sent them back in along with Chris Arcella, a talented sophomore midfielder who replaced a defender, Austin Groves.
But Richmond was forced to make just one more save, in the 77th minute.
Oakland Mills plays South River at 5 p.m. Friday at South Carroll High School in the state semifinal game.