BAILEY — The season ended for Cleveland’s boys soccer team Wednesday night in a chilly, drizzly match against Southern Nash.There was disappointment as the Rams huddled following a 4-2 loss at Southern Nash in the third round of the 3A playoffs. But there was also a feeling of accomplishment for the third-year school’s program.
“I feel great about the whole season,” Cleveland coach Fabri Bonilla said. “The seniors contributed a whole lot to the season. I told them at the beginning of the year, ‘You guys are the foundation for the future and if you guys want to be a perennial powerhouse, this is the season you have to step it up.’ And they did.”
After winning three games in 2011, the Rams went 18-7 this season, winning the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference championship and making their first trip to the playoffs. The Rams defeated West Craven and Jacksonville White Oak in the playoffs before losing to Southern Nash, the Big East 3A Conference champions.
The Firebirds opened a 2-0 halftime lead, getting a penalty-kick goal by Moises Gonzalez with 3:20 left in the half to go up by two goals.
Cleveland fought back, cutting the margin to 2-1 when senior Jesse Olmstead scored in the first minute of the second half.
“I just told them we had to come out and play our game [in the second half],” Bonilla said. “The penalty kick hurt, but they have been playing tough all year.”
Southern Nash made it 3-1 in the 60th minute when Gonzalez took a throw-in from the Firebirds keeper and dribbled nearly the length on the field, fending off several defenders before chipping the ball over the head of Gio Solis from about 20 yards out on the left.
Six minutes later, Southern Nash got a goal from freshman Nilton Perez from the left side on an assist from Trey Jerman that gave the Firebirds a 4-1 lead.
Jack Hunt scored the final Cleveland goal with 5:30 left in the game.
The second half was physical, with five yellow cards being issued – three on Southern Nash and two on Cleveland.
“We’ve matched up against physical teams before,” Bonilla said. “We can handle it. Physical play wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before.
“We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know much about them. I didn’t know they had that kind of speed. Speed kills, whether you are playing football or soccer.”
Using speed to push the pace was something that the Firebirds (18-4-1) have done all season, coach John Matthews said.
“We like to keep pressure on the other team’s back line and try to force mistakes,” Matthews said. “We get up the field in a hurry and it is something we try to use to our advantage.”
Southern Nash outshot Cleveland 31-9, but the game was not that one-sided, Matthews said.
“[Cleveland] played a heck of a game,” Matthews said. “I don’t think the score reflects how competitive the game was. They put pressure on us from the midfield and back. They are a heck of a team.”
And it was a heck of a season for the Rams.
“Nobody expected anything out of this team,” Bonilla said. “There is a lot of potential on that bench, 10 freshmen, three sophomores and five juniors. We’ll be back.”
For Olmstead and the other five seniors - Hunt, Jacob Burton, Je’von Brown, Jesse Aguinaga and Brandon Gremillion - in Cleveland’s first senior class, it was a season to remember.
“We went out to practice every day and worked hard,” Olmstead said. “That was where we made the statement, at practice and doing what we were supposed to do in the classroom. It’s definitely not a joke where we are, in the third round of the playoffs.
“If we get in the states later on, they will have to say, ‘Hey, Cleveland plays, Cleveland plays to win.’ That is what you want.”