By Greg Hutton

Allied News Sports Correspondent

SLIPPERY ROCK — Mercer’s spirited comeback fell short and Slippery Rock remained undefeated in Region 1 play with a 5-3 victory over the visiting Mustangs in boys’ soccer action on Monday afternoon.

An extremely offensive first half saw the Rockets take a seemingly-comfortable 4-1 lead into the break. However, Mercer scored consecutive goals to pull within one before Slippery Rock sealed the game with a Brant Sloan insurance tally four minutes from regulation.

If the first 25 minutes of the game was any indication, attending fans were in for a high-scoring contest. The first four shots of the game (three from Slippery Rock and one from Mercer) all found the back of the net.

The Rockets began the scoring with a goal just over seven minutes into the contest. Mike Ramirez was fouled as he weaved between several Mercer defenders just inches outside the box, and the junior buried the ensuing free kick into the lower-right corner of the net for his first of two consecutive goals.

Slippery Rock (9-0-1, 11-1-1) found the net again in the 16th minute when Devan Hribal beat his defender and served a perfect cross to the feet of a diving Ramirez directly in front of the goal.

However, Mercer (5-2-2, 6-3-1) responded just 25 seconds later to cut the Rockets lead in half, 2-1, courtesy of a well-timed run from Michael Sherman.

Mercer had several near-breakaways stalled due to offsides calls in the early moments of the game, but Zachary Juergens’ through-ball found an onsides Sherman, who blasted the ball past Slippery Rock goalkeeper Abir Chatterjee.

Those near-chances, however, would come back to haunt the Mustangs. Mercer was offsides seven times in the contest.

Brandon Zarichnak, whose calm and collected presence in the middle of the field allowed the Rockets to possess the ball well in the first half, got himself on the scoresheet with a highlight-reel goal in the 20th minute. The junior chest-trapped a ball near the top of the box, allowed it to bounce once, and then belted a dipping ball over the head of Mercer’s Joel Pyle.

Slippery Rock’s Ryan Gercken rounded out the first-half scoring effort off of a Dave Caldwell cross. Gercken was wide open in front of the net, which was likely the result of a miscommunication in Mercer’s defense.

“We were a little shell-shocked early,” Mercer coach Brian Livenspire stated. “They scored a couple of quick goals, but we played pretty well.

Livenspire made minor positional adjustments at halftime and emphasized that his team shouldn’t be discouraged, as the Rockets are a really, really good team.

His halftime speech worked, as a much more attacking-minded, determined Mustangs squad took the field after the break.

Unlike the first 40 minutes of play, Mercer was able to sustain multiple attacks on Slippery Rock’s side of the field. The Rockets’ defense was exposed on many occasions, much like the defense of the Mustangs in the first half, and Mercer exploited the gaps between defenders with a pair of goals to force the score to 4-3.

Sherman took another penetrating pass from Juergens and finished low to the near post in the 47th minute, and Juergens capped his one-goal, two-assist effort with a 70th-minute goal on an assist from David Baver.

“(The defensive lapse) is something that we’ll be addressing at practice,” Slippery Rock head coach Anthony Buzard said. “(Mercer) made some nice runs and our defense got flat in the second half.”

The Rockets’ home facility, which is a soccer-only complex, is wider than most other fields in the region. As such, Slippery Rock successfully utilized the width and possessed the ball for long periods of time.

“We are a possession team,” Buzard added. “(The width of the Rockets’ field) gives us an opportunity to pass around, and we took advantage of that in the first half.

Mercer also came into the contest with a game plan that centered largely on possessing the ball. However, after Slippery Rock’s dominance in the first half, the Mustangs opted instead for a more direct approach via long balls.

“We like to keep the ball on the ground,” Livenspire said. “But against (Slippery Rock), we were more successful with a direct style, so we stayed with that.”

Although his team wasn’t able to possess the ball as it had hoped, Livenspire credited his entire team for their strong-willed effort.

“(Mike) Sherman gave us a spark up top,” said Livenspire. “Caleb Learned gave us energy off the bench. Trever Kelly played solid for us. Overall, I was pleased with all the kids. I thought they played real well.”

Monday’s contest was indicative of the healthy rivalry that exists between the Rockets and Mustangs. The two squads tied 0-0 in their first meeting of the season on Sept. 6 in one of only two contests that Slippery Rock has failed to win so far. In addition, Slippery Rock and Mercer split the regular-season series last year, with each team winning at its home field.

“It’s just a competitive rivalry between us,” Buzard said. “It always seems to be a close match. There are rarely more than two goals between us.”

Notes: All three of the Mustangs’ on-target shots resulted in goals. ... Mercer tallied six total shots in the contest while Slippery Rock fired off 13.

In other Mercer and Slippery Rock boys action, it was:

ä Mercer 2, Wilmington 2 (2 OT) — At Lamor Road Field, Mustang Zach Juergens posted both goals to force the tie.

Mercer (5-3-3) outshot Wilmington 27-8, but the Hounds had a 7-3 edge in corner kicks. Goalkeeper Joel Pyle produced nine saves for Mercer.

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