Jacksonville was the reason no player on Cardinal Gibbons’ boys’ soccer team had played for a state championship. Until Tuesday.
The Crusaders netted a 72nd-minute goal to top the Cardinals 1-0 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A East final.
The No. 2 seed Cardinals (23-3-1), making their 10th straight appearance in the East final, had beaten the No. 9 Crusaders (22-2-1) the past two years.
Junior Zach Clements, who was on a long list of Cardinal Gibbons players who had almost scored in a dominant performance, broke through.
“I just kept my head in the game and kept trying and trying and trying,” he said.
Clements was streaking down the right side on a counterattack – started by J.P. Pleasants – when he tried to cross, but it was deflected. The defender was out of position to collect the bounce, allowing Clements to regroup and step into the box before hitting a left-footed shot into the far side.
“My friends usually make fun of me because I really can’t shoot with my left, but it worked,” Clements said.
His goal came after six near-misses the Crusaders had in the second half.
“The defenders did a great job of marking him, but finally, because he stayed up, he only had one guy to worry about instead of two,” Cardinal Gibbons coach Tim Healy said.
As a means to control speedy Jacksonville forward CJay Sparks, who has 47 goals this season, the Crusaders made sure all four defenders were aware of him.
Drew Rabil – Cardinal Gibbons’ leading scorer who moved to right back at the start of the playoffs – as well Carl Polambaro, Cooper Duplantis and T.J. Schaaf, were able to turn away the Cardinals’ passes intended for Sparks.
Sparks’ only true chance at goal came just before Clements scored. He got free of two defenders and had a one-on-one with the keeper, who deflected the shot out for a corner kick.
“We didn’t make too many adjustments; we just made sure all four guys were together. There’s no way one guy can mark Sparks and I don’t think two guys can mark Sparks,” Healy said. “We had four guys marking him – just not all at the same time. We always had an eye on him.”
The two teams have played in five straight postseasons – four in the 3A East final.
“I love playing Jacksonville. I love the fact that we’ve beaten them and they’ve beaten us and one of us is always in the state championship. I love the tradition, I love the rivalry, I love coach (David) Miller and everything he does for those boys,” Healy said.