CLAYTON — Cleveland carried play for almost the entire 80 minutes Wednesday night against county rival South Johnston.
But the Trojans’ tenacious defense made the host Rams work very hard to get on the scoreboard.
When they did the goals came in quick succession, as Jacob Burton scored twice in a span of less than three minutes early in the second half to give the Rams a 2-0 victory.
The win left Cleveland, which has its first senior class this season, with a 10-3 overall record and 6-0 and in first place in the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference. South fell to 4-5-1 and 2-2-1.
“We didn’t have a great first half,” said first-year Cleveland coach Fabrio Bonilla. “But we made some adjustments and came out better in the second. I just talked about what we worked on in practice, dropping the ball to the defense.
“I told them, nobody said every ball we play has to be to the front. We can use our defense. And we started using it to switch fields – we opened up a lot for our center mids and our forwards to get some shots on goal.”
First-year South coach Rami Kauppi said his team stayed close with a superior effort.
“We were just a step slower than they were,” Kauppi said. “Our defensive effort was pretty good, and It’s probably the best game we’ve played this year.
“It helps when you play against better competition, because we stepped it up a little bit, too. We were better offensively, going forward and helping out more than we normally do. But it wasn’t nearly enough.”
Burton scored his first goal in the 55th minute, slamming the ball in from about 25 yards out on the right side on the first of two assists from Brett Koemstedt.
Then three minutes later, Burton scored again straight off Koemstedt’s corner kick from the left side.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Brett,” Burton said of his two goals. “And (fullback) Je’von (Brown) did a great job starting the offense. We came out kind of weak in the first half, but we were rolling better in the second. We’ve done that a lot this year, and we need to work on coming out of the gate.”
South stayed close with both solid general defense and superior play by goalie Payton Lee, who finished with nine saves including a couple that looked like easy Cleveland goals.
“I think we were pretty good,” Lee said. “We fell asleep for a while in the second half and let down a little bit after they scored that first goal. But the first half was probably the best half we’ve played. Cleveland has come a long way from last year. I think they’re the best team we’ve faced this season.”
Gio Solis had three saves to earn his seventh shutout of the season for Cleveland.
“Our defense was really good today,” Solis said. “I wouldn’t be able to get shutouts without Jack (Hunt) and George (Gonzalez) and Nick (Brinke) and Je’von and Garrett (Lee). It was a really good team effort in the back.”