When Joshua White found the net in the 50th minute and tied the game at three goals apiece, almost every Catawba Ridge player faced the boisterous home-side student section.
They’d just scored their second equalizer of the day. They’d just, in essence, completed a second comeback. And this one felt momentous: Some Copperhead players, mid-celebration, pointed down toward the green turf underneath them as if to say, “This is our time.”
And in the moment, it felt like it was.
But 30 minutes later, it became clear that Eastside wasn’t quite ready to relinquish its time on top.
The Catawba Ridge boys soccer team (20-3) saw its season end in the Upper State championship game to Eastside (19-2-1) for the second straight season after a 5-3 loss on Monday in Fort Mill. The Eagles from Taylors, SC, will now play in their fifth straight Class 4A state championship game on Friday night against North Augusta.
“It’s a cruel game to play,” Catawba Ridge head coach Phillip McCarter told reporters postgame. “Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce the right way, a set piece goes the wrong way. So it really doesn’t take much in a game of soccer to come out on the losing end. When you got two fairly even teams, sometimes it just comes down to an odd bounce. ”
He added: “Hats off to Eastside. They played the better game tonight. We had a lot of chances, could’ve easily gone the other way if we would’ve capitalized on some of those earlier, but we didn’t. And Eastside gets to represent the Upper State in the finals. ”
The Copperheads struck first and remarkably fast. Catawba Ridge’s first goal came on its first possession – about 12 seconds after the game’s opening kickoff thanks to a Caden Tull goal from the left side that banged off the cross bar and broke the goal line to make the score 1-0.
“We didn’t even know what happened,” first-year Eastside head coach Stephen Wood told The Herald postgame of the game-opening sequence. “It was in the back of the net before we paid attention.”
But Wood and his team claimed they were unfazed. And they proved it. Playing with a 1-0 deficit put the Eagles on an attack mode that never faded throughout Monday’s contest – and a back-and-forth contest for the ages ensued.
Eastside’s Clement Aubert scored with a header from a ninth-minute corner kick, and then Tristan Nixon nudged the ball in from short range in the 16th minute to make it score 2-1. A Catawba Ridge Zach Zawlocki penalty kick goal sent the teams into the halftime break tied at 2-2.
In the second half, Eastside scored (Liam Brown), and then Catawba Ridge scored that aforementioned goal by White to cut the game’s margin to 3-3 with 30 minutes left in the game.
But then the rest of the game belonged to the Eagles: Eastside’s Kenneth Pagoada found the back of the net in the 56th minute. And then Nixon, after a set piece by Catawba Ridge that pushed a ton of players into the team’s attacking half, found himself alone on a counterattack and scooted the ball by the Catawba Ridge goalkeeper to cement the game at 5-3.
That fifth goal tied Catawba Ridge’s mark for most goals given up all year in a single game. Heading into Monday, the Copperheads had only allowed three goals in their last seven contests.
Catawba Ridge will graduate three seniors – goalkeeper Matthew Carolyn, midfielder Zach Zawlocki and midfielder Derek Ringnalda – and return the rest.
McCarter, who had to say goodbye to 12 seniors last year, in these eerily similar circumstances, said after the game that he wasn’t quite ready to look forward to the possibility of next year. But he said he offered his team some encouraging insight nonetheless.
“It’s hard to talk about that right now because your heart breaks for those three young men. It’s a pretty big deal for them to know that they were that close, ”McCarter said.
He then added, “But I told the boys, ‘At Catawba Ridge, we don’t rebuild, we reload.’ So next year, we’ll come back even stronger. ”
Indian Land girls play for state title bid Tuesday
The Indian Land girls soccer team plays Eastside at home at 7 pm on Tuesday night for the Upper State title. The Warriors have done so after beating Easley and AC Flora in the first two rounds of the Class 4A playoffs.
Sam Copeland contributed to this report.