The Copperheads Sai Ganesh goes for a header during their game against Easley. Photos by Rob Upton

Catawba Ridge head coach Phillip McCarter wasn’t pleased with his team’s performance in the first half. He let his players know about it in the halftime break.

“To be honest, I chewed them out,” McCarter said. “I thought we didn’t give a very good effort. We weren’t doing the simple things, bringing it out from the back, tackling, so I challenged them to clean it up. I called some players out by name. We weren’t playing like a No. 1 or 2 seed, and I wanted them to work through it.”

His players rose to the occasion. The third-ranked Copperheads, which improved to 18-4, scored twice in three minutes to break a late second-half deadlock and defeat Easley 3-1 in a second-round matchup of the Class 4A state tournament Wednesday night in Fort Mill.

Catawba Ridge will next play at Wade Hampton in the quarterfinals round on Friday, May 3.

Joshua Zawlocki’s left-footed curler gave Catawba Ridge a narrow lead heading into halftime. Joey Rodriguez equalized 15 minutes into the second half. But when McCarter brought on Kevin Fernandez and Camden Gifford from the bench, the tides turned.

Gifford tapped home the go-ahead goal following Jeremy White’s free kick in the 68th minute, and Zawlocki converted his second strike of the night in the 71st.

Fernandez and Gifford were playing on yellow cards, so McCarter was apprehensive about starting either.

“I had to bring them in,” he said. “But the game changed. Once we got our goals, I pulled them right back out.”

Catawba Ridge controlled the tempo for most of the first half, and created plenty of attacking crosses.
Angelo D’Errico played in Zawlocki through the six-yard box as early as the seventh minute, but Zawlocki couldn’t turn his shot on frame to threaten Easley’s sophomore goalkeeper River Andrews.

That changed in the 14th minute when Zawlocki used his pace to beat a defender on the wing, his dribbling to cut infield, and his shooting chops to curl a gorgeous left-footed shot past Andrews to put the Copperheads up 1-0.

Easley rarely found much footing up front, but opted to shoot from fast breaks.

Junior Kevin Torres found the ball at his feet following a long throw-in in the 37th minute, but his shot found only the side netting of Catawba Ridge goalkeeper Liam Prendergast.

Gifford had a chance to double the Copperheads’ lead just a minute later, but his shot from about 14 yards out flew just over the Easley crossbar.

Easley showed plenty of grit following the halftime break.

Torres found himself in open space in the 52nd minute following a throw-in, but his shot flew high of the Catawba Ridge crossbar.

The Green Wave finally equalized when Rodriguez flew down the near wing on a fast break to break free of his defender and beat the Catawba Ridge keeper in a one-on-one.

Catawba Ridge found new energy after the equalizer, with McCarter’s team flooding into the Easley box to launch new attacks. Winger Jermaine Smith did well to dribble infield in the 66th minute, shoulder his marker, and rifle a hard, right-footed shot that beat the keeper, but skimmed just wide of the far post.
But with Fernandez and Gifford able to take center stage, Catawba Ridge pushed out in front again.

Jeremy White’s 68th-minute free-kick was parried away by Andrews, but only as far as Gifford at the back post. And Zawlocki finished off an attack three minutes later to hand Catawba Ridge a two-goal advantage.

“We knew (Easley) would be a quality opponent,” said McCarter, who was named the Region 3-4A Coach of the Year. “I thought we were a couple goals better, but anything can happen in a single-elimination game. Anytime you win, it’s a good thing. There are a lot of things to clean up for Friday.”

The game was Catawba Ridge’s first of the postseason. Catawba Ridge earned a first-round bye after winning its fourth-straight Region III title during the regular season.

Catawba Ridge’s Joshua Zawlocki slides during while getting entangled with an Easley player.