Catawba Ridge’s Caden Tull races to the ball during the Copperheads match Friday night. Photos by Angela Holt.

As each member of the Catawba Ridge boys’ soccer team exited the locker room for the last time of the 2023 season, many with tears in their eyes, they passed through a gauntlet of family and friends waiting to greet them and share warm words about a hard-fought season.

“It’s never fun to lose,” said Copperheads head coach Phillip McCarter. “It always hurts. But you can’t guarantee the result. You just have to fight for the opportunity.”

Senior Keagan Pace scored a hat-trick, including two second-half goals over the space of three minutes, to help Riverside High School earn a 3-1 win over Catawba Ridge in a third-round Class 4A playoff matchup Friday evening at The Pit.

With the win, Riverside will move on to play in the Upper State championship game Mon., May 8 against either Eastside or North Augusta. 

Despite entering the matchup with a 14-match winning streak dating back to early March, the Copperheads, which finished 18-3-1, couldn’t overcome the Warriors’ offensive exploits in the second half. 

“We were focused on matching their type of play,” said Riverside coach Scott Columbia. “We knew if we played out of the back and were fast on the counterattack, we’d score goals. We kept playing our game, and it ended in the result we wanted.”

Both teams created chances in the first half, with Catawba Ridge enjoying most of the early possession. Riverside and Catawba Ridge were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, by MaxPreps heading into Friday’s encounter. 

Pace forced Catawba Ridge goalkeeper Liam Prendergast into a diving save when he launched a long-range shot from just outside the Copperheads’ box. 

And Ivan Vrh was unlucky not to score from the resulting corner kick, but Vrh’s header was cleared off the line by a Catawba Ridge defender.

Catawba Ridge finally opened the deadlock in the 29th minute through sophomore forward Camden Gifford. Gifford had been subbed on just five minutes earlier after an injury to senior captain James Abramo. 

But the sophomore was in the right place at the right time to give Catawba Ridge the early lead. Senior Caden Tull wriggled his way into the Warriors’ penalty box and got off a shot that bounced off goalkeeper Chris Tyra and into Gifford’s path at the back post, where the sophomore tapped home from close range. 

But the lead was short-lived. Riverside equalized in the 36th minute through Pace, who unleashed a hard right-footed shot from a corner kick to send both teams into the locker room tied at 1-1. 

“I thought our effort was not lacking,” McCarter said. “I thought we gave everything we could. Some players… there was zero more they could give. People who don’t think that the game we love doesn’t have an element of luck don’t watch the game. The ball just didn’t bounce in our direction.”

Pace scored two goals in the space of about three minutes to open the second half. 

The striker slipped in between two Catawba Ridge defenders and connected with a cross from the far wing to beat Prendergast and help the Warriors take the lead for the first time of the night. 

And Pace linked up with the same winger just three minutes later. After a driving run on the right side, Pace received a nicely-weighted ball and made no mistakes with his guided right-footed shot to give Riverside a two-goal advantage. 

The Warriors argued for a penalty kick in the 60th minute when Fabian Menendez was tackled near the edge of the penalty area, but the referee pointed to just outside the box. 

Catawba Ridge continued to fight. Sophomore Jermaine Smith forced goalkeeper Tyra into a diving save with a hard shot in the 65th minute. And Joshua Zawlocki did well to force his way into the Riverside box just four minutes later, but Tyra came out to stifle the attack. 

But the Riverside defense held strong to book their team a spot in the Class 4A Upper State championship game. The Warriors won the state championship the past two years in Class 5A. 

McCarter had glowing words for the 10 graduating seniors on his roster. 

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “The body of work over four years, most people would switch places with them in a New York minute. Three region titles, you can’t ask much more than that.”

Ryan Getz fights for a header for the Copperheads against Riverside Friday evening.