HUDSON — The road to the Suburban League National Conference title is a bit muddled due to the plethora of strong teams.
Sadly for two of those talented squads, they may be on the outside looking in.
The host Hudson boys soccer team settled for a 0-0 draw with Stow-Munroe Falls Tuesday at Hudson Memorial Stadium.
The Explorers, who defeated the Bulldogs 1-0 in the Kent Division I district title game last year and have not lost to Stow in recent years, moved to 4-5-2 overall and 2-1-2 in the conference.
The Bulldogs moved to 8-2-2 overall and 2-1-2 in the conference. Since both teams have a loss and two ties, it will be extremely difficult for either squad to get a piece of the National Conference title.
Brecksville-Broadview Heights, which defeated North Royalton 3-1 Tuesday, remains unbeaten in conference play. The Bears also have just one loss in conference play.
Nonetheless, the two longtime rivals played a very competitive and entertaining match that could have gone either way.
"I think that was two of the better teams, to be honest," Hudson head coach Steve Knapp said. "It was two good, well-organized teams. It was hard to break."
In some ways, it was a tale of two halves.
The Explorers dominated possession much of the way in the first half, while the Bulldogs’ offense, which was relatively quiet for the first 40 minutes, created far more chances after halftime.
Mother Nature had something to do with it.
"The wind played a factor," longtime Stow head coach Kyle Kosmala said. "We could not win any head balls in the beginning. They came in and attacked us and put us on the defensive for 40 minutes."
Hudson also nearly put a number on the scoreboard before all of the fans got comfortable in their seats.
A little more than two minutes into the game, junior Jarrett Widdoes had a shot hit the crossbar. Senior Ryan Sarkisian also had a couple of chances that were denied by the Bulldogs’ defense.
"They sit back nicely," Knapp said of the Stow defenders. "They are extremely big. We, maybe, could have played one more ball or one more pass to free somebody. But we rushed a little bit. For the most part, I thought our decisions were really good."
Widdoes also hit a post as the Explorers created a number of possessions where they invaded the Bulldogs’ goal throughout the first half.
Not surprisingly, Stow’s defense, always a strength for Kosmala over the years, answered the challenge each time.
Of course, this Bulldogs’ team is a bit different from previous squads. Tuesday was a reminder of how stingy Stow’s teams have been for many years.
This year, on the other hand, the Bulldogs’ defense hasn’t been quite as heavily armored as it has been in the past.
"We have been a pretty high-scoring offense," Kosmala said. "This was our third shutout of the year. This is the time of year where we have to pick up the defense. We’re starting to do that.
"This is the first time somebody really put it on us and we had to find ourselves defensively. We haven’t faced that kind of pressure yet this season.
"Even when we were beat, we still hounded them defensively, played smart and didn’t commit fouls."
In the second half, Stow was far more dangerous offensively. And of course, the Bulldogs also had the wind at their backs.
Senior Corey Hunt’s one-timer off a pass from the outside hit the post. Hunt also had a hard shot saved by Explorers’ senior goalie Tyler Venti.
"It (the wind) knocked everything back about seven, eight yards … every goal kick, every free kick," Knapp said. "In the first half, we were able to send balls consistently over midfield and into our attacking third.
"I think the wind helped both teams. That’s why it was so important to get that first one. I really thought we should have gotten the first one. We had so many good chances."
Hudson never got that "first one," thanks to the Bulldogs’ defense, led by junior Caleb Benci, and particularly, junior goalkeeper Chris Miller, who saved all seven of his chances.
"Caleb is one of those guys who has been a great surprise for us," Kosmala said. "Last year, he was on the JV team and he played a lot of forward. He’s phenomenal at marking out one player.
"For Chris, this is his first year in goal for us. He’s coming along well. I thought this was his best game."
Hunt and speedy senior Kyle Sommer were Stow’s most dangerous offensive players. When Sommer had the ball, Hudson’s defenders had to turn on the jets if they wanted to stay with him.
"They are the fastest team we are going to play all year," Knapp said. "When you add the wind with their speed, they’re off to the races.
"They countered a little bit; we wanted to possess a little bit. Because of our possession, they could counter when we lost it. That’s the downfall of possession. When you lose possession, you’re not positioned correctly."
The Explorers, who had a 7-3 advantage in shots on goal and a 4-3 edge in corner kicks, need to figure out how to put the finishing touches when they get in the opponents’ penalty box.
But Hudson has made significant progress in recent weeks. And that could make the Explorers very dangerous when the postseason arrives.
"We had other chances," Knapp said. "It was very productive, not on the scoreboard, but as far as creating. We’re starting to get something.
"The kids have a great attitude. They know we’re close. This group and my previous groups have always been at their best in the end. That’s really the most important time for us."
The Bulldogs, who will look to dethrone Hudson at the Kent Division I sectional-district tournament, expects to be a formidable challenger, too.
If the defense can continue to match its high-powered offense, a deep run in the postseason could be in the cards for Stow.
"Things are going well," Kosmala said. "We have a veteran squad. Most of the starters are juniors and seniors. We have a decent amount of talent on the bench, too."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.