It was only after hearing the final whistle, shaking hands, and walking to the locker room that Dalton Bailey and his Catawba Ridge Copperheads teammates realized just how tired, battered and bruised they really were.
Drawing upon every gasp of air and ounce of effort they had, the Catawba Ridge boys’ soccer team came out on top against visiting A.C. Flora Falcons with a 3-2 win Friday night in the quarterfinals of the 4A state playoffs, having survived a frenzied late rally from the Falcons.
With the win, Catawba Ridge will travel to play Eastside High in the Upper State championship May 11. That match will decide who will play the Lower State champion in the state title game May 15.
“I think we’re all really fatigued,” Bailey said. “Once we won, and we went to the locker room, we just went ‘Oh gosh, we’re all really tired, we’re all really sore.’ But we’re just so excited to be playing on Tuesday.”
Bailey converted a first-half penalty, giving Catawba Ridge a 1-0 advantage heading into the halftime break. But the Falcons equalized just two minutes into the second half when Ayden McCarter gave up an own goal while attempting to make a clearance.
Still, unbeaten Catawba Ridge, now 21-0-2, rebounded like it always has this season.
Caleb Brooks scored with a solo effort on the left wing, when he cut inside and lasered a smart right-footed shot past the A.C. Flora goalkeeper to put his team back up 2-1.
Evan Serkin made it 3-1 to the Copperheads advantage when he latched onto a through-ball from Joshua White, then beat the Falcons’ keeper with a one-on-one in the box.
A.C. Flora’s Jackson Price cut the lead to 3-2 with six minutes left to play after a defensive mix-up in the Copperheads’ box. The Falcons did their best to capitalize on the momentum swing, pouring players into the box on a series of corners and free kicks, but goalkeeper Andrew Reinhardt was able to turn away the remaining attacks to help Catawba Ridge see out the closer-than-anticipated victory.
Head coach Phillip McCarter seemed visibly moved by his team’s effort. He scaled the brick wall next to his team’s home stands after the third Copperheads’ goal and implored the already-raucous crowd for even more noise. After the final whistle blew, McCarter hugged several of his players and buried his head in his hat.
“So many reactions,” he said. “Joy, pride, happiness, relief. I’m just really proud of my boys. I told my players, this was going to be one of the harder games in the bracket. It’s a good thing we saw them in the second round and not the final. Hats off to A.C. Flora, they played a great game. It could have went their way, but we’ve done what we’ve done all season, and found a way to win.”
Bailey, a senior, said the team had to emotionally reset after the equalizer early in the second half.
“We all went down, we all started screaming at each other,” he said. “But then we came back together, and we ended up scoring again, and once we scored again, it was like a spark went off. It’s crazy.”
Bailey said the home crowd, which was one of the biggest he’s ever seen, was a huge motivating factor to help Catawba Ridge turn the tide and ultimately gut out the win. For Bailey and the senior class, this was their final game at The Pit before they graduate.
“It was one of the best crowds I’ve ever played with,” he said. “When we scored, it was crazy. I felt like I was playing in a dome. With (A.C. Flora fans) chirping at us, and us chirping back at them, it was nuts.”
Bailey said McCarter told the team to spend the weekend recovering and relaxing ahead of the Upper State final against Eastside, which beat Easley 4-1 in their quarterfinal matchup on Friday night.
Top-ranked Catawba Ridge has been touted as one of the state’s best boys’ soccer team almost all year, but the team never feels the pressure, McCarter said.
So, do they feel like there’s a target on their backs?
“The boys flip it and say they want to walk out and prove it every game,” McCarter said. “They see themselves as the underdog in every game. That’s a pretty cool way to see it.”