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Century clinches share of Big Nine title with win over West

Max Comfere's late first-half goal was the difference as the Panthers claimed their first share of the Big Nine Conference title since 2006.

Century boys soccer
Century's Abdirasak Bulale prepares to make a pass during the Panthers' Tuesday night game against Mankato West. Alex VandenHouten / Post Bulletin

The last time the Century High School boys soccer team won a Big Nine Conference title, coach Hal Houghton had a different look.

"I had dark hair back then, so it's been a while," Houghton said with a chuckle. "A long, long time."

That's what made Tuesday so sweet.

Thanks to a late first-half goal from Max Comfere and some solid defense, the Panthers clinched at least a share of the conference championship for the first time since 2006 as they beat Mankato West 1-0 on Tuesday night at Century.

The win moves the Panthers to 12-2 overall and 9-1 in conference play, while West fell to 7-3 in the conference and had its seven-game win streak snapped. Century still has unfinished business with Mayo lurking one game back in the standings after its 2-1 victory over Winona on Tuesday. The Spartans host Albert Lea, while Century travels to take on Mankato East in the regular-season finales on Thursday.

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For now, the Panthers will enjoy the night.

"This is something we have had our eyes on for a while," center back Luke Dallman said. "Hopefully, we can get the win Thursday and win the whole thing."

It was Dallman and the rest of the Panthers back line of defense that initially found themselves back on their heels in the opening 20 minutes with the Scarlets utilizing a different offensive approach that saw attackers making overlapping runs and stressing the outside of the Century defense. It led to a couple of early Grade-A chances for the Scarlets.

"They were things that we haven't had to deal with all year," Houghton said. "It took us a little while just to figure out how we were going to account for what they were doing and they did a nice job. ... Our guys had difficulty figuring out who they were going to mark. They had us a bit puzzled early in the game."

The Scarlets' best chance came in the 12th minute when Mohamed Jama delivered a shot from just outside the 6-yard box, but keeper Charlie Odell made the biggest of his four saves on the night by deflecting the hard shot away with his left hand. That was one of the last true threats West could muster as Century began to figure it out by switching and passing off assignments — much like one would see in basketball — and shut it down.

"They were fantastic on the counter attacks and that was something we had to adjust to by dropping our wings back more defensively," Dallman said. "But I think after we made that adjustment, we started doing a lot better."

And as the first half wore on, the Century offense was beginning to find its rhythm as well. But it couldn't find the back of the net. In fact, Century had a couple of great chances that it couldn't put on goal. But the Panthers, along with everyone in the stadium, could feel the West defense was about to break. They just had to keep with it.

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Century soccer
Century's Max Comfere skies high for a header during the Panthers' Tuesday night game against Mankato West. Alex VandenHouten / Post Bulletin

"It's tough, those opening minutes and I think it's all about patience," Century's Max Comfere said. "As the minutes go on, it's easy to get frustrated, but if you just keep chugging along, one's bound to go in eventually."

It was Comfere who broke the scoreless tie with just more than 4 minutes remaining in the first half. He took a nice pass from Rivaldo Pena before breaking loose from a couple of West defenders and unleashing a shot that found the back of the net, leaving the West keeper frozen in place. Comfere was a menace all night, putting tremendous pressure on the West defense as he finished with five shots — four on goal.

"It feels like it is all coming together," Comfere said. "All the pieces are just slotting perfectly together. It feels like it's our year. This is a job that has been going on for the last three, four years. We are at the end of the tunnel, but we (have) to keep pushing through."

The Panthers had more opportunities in the second half, yet couldn't pick up an insurance goal. But the way the back end for Century played, it didn't need one. West did not have a threatening opportunity the whole second half with all four of its shots on goal coming in the opening 40 minutes.

"It stems from the guys in the back just communicating," Dallman said. "(Greg Watson), me, Sam (Odell), Ben (Johnson), Noah Gjervik, they all did a fantastic job just listening and correcting when the coaches or I tell them stuff. It's really all the guys around me."

It was a great night for the Panthers, but they know more work needs to be done.

"If we don't show up for work on Thursday, then Mayo ties us," Houghton said. "It's still not over yet."

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Century 1, Mankato West 0
Mankato West#0#0#—#0
Century#1#0#—#1
Mankato West: Goalie: Drew Smook 7 saves.
Century: Max Comfere 1 goal; Rivaldo Pena 1 assist. Goalie: Charlie Odell 4 saves.

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