Down by a goal and searching for an equalizer in the 60th minute, Catawba Ridge head coach Philip McCarter sent nearly all of his Copperhead players up for a free kick deep in opposing territory.
But just as quickly as the chance was created, the opportunity was lost, and the ball popped out into open play, leaving Eastside’s Tristan Nixon with plenty of space to score what would be the game’s decisive final goal.
The Copperheads lacked just enough luck to succeed Monday night, falling 5-3 to the visiting Eastside Eagles in the Class 4A Upper State championship game.
With the win, Eastside earns a spot in the Class 4A state championship game against North Augusta May 13 at Irmo High School. North Augusta beat James Island 1-0 Monday evening in the Lower State title game.
“It’s a cruel game we play,” McCarter said. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce the right way, a set piece goes the other way. It doesn’t take much with soccer. Sometimes, with even teams, it comes down to an odd bounce. We had chances. It could have easily gone the other way.”
McCarter extolled the hard work and determination of his entire team, including his three graduating seniors. He shared a long hug and chat with senior goalkeeper Matthew Carlyon, who served as a loyal backstop for the Copperheads all season long.
The Copperheads have now fallen in the state semifinals in back-to-back years. Eastside defeated Catawba Ridge 1-1 (4-2 on penalty kicks) in Taylors in last season’s Upper State championship game. The Eagles lost to eventual state champions James Island in the title game.
“It’s a big accomplishment to make it,” McCarter said. “We’ll be back. At Catawba Ridge, we don’t rebuild, we reload. We’ll come back even stronger.”
Catawba Ridge got off to a dream start within the first 15 seconds of action. Shortly after the opening whistle, junior striker Caden Tull broke forward on the left wing from the kickoff, cut inside and smacked a hard shot past Eastside goalkeeper Kaleb Craig for the opening goal.
But the excitement was short-lived. Junior midfielder Clement Aubert equalized for Eastside with a ninth-minute header from a corner kick, and Nixon put the visiting Eagles in front 2-1 just seven minutes later when he touched the ball home from short-range off of a cross-field pass that eluded two Copperheads defenders.
But Catawba Ridge, which finished the season at 20-3, fought back and entered the halftime break on level terms. Zachary Zawlocki earned a 39th minute penalty kick after getting bundled over in the penalty area, then converted the spot-kick himself to equalize for a 2-2 scoreline.
The action didn’t slow down in the second half. Sophomore defender Liam Brown gave Eastside a 3-2 lead when he bundled home a goal off of a 46th minute corner kick.
Junior striker Joshua White equalized for Catawba Ridge just four minutes later, sweeping a shot past Craig in the 50th minute after a shot hit the goalkeeper and rebounded out.
Kenneth Pagoada handed Eastside yet another lead when he beat a defender to a pass and tapped the ball in for a 4-3 lead in the 56th minute.
And Nixon had the hammer blow in the 60th minute. He raced forward from a busted Catawba Ridge corner, found himself 1-on-1 with Carlyon, and fired a low shot that made it 5-3 to the Eagles.
“We’re getting a rivalry going,” said McCarter of the Catawba Ridge-Eastside connection. “It was definitely a high-energy game. Good for the spectators watching, it would have been entertaining. We played a great team.”
The Copperheads will look to reload and make another run next year, with several rising seniors ready to take up leadership opportunities.