The Grace Christian Sanford Crusaders wrapped up an undefeated conference season with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory on the road Thursday against the Grace Christian Raleigh Eagles.
The Crusaders (15-3-1, 8-0 Eastern Plains NCISAA 2A) trailed 2-1 with less than seven minutes remaining but Jose Leonidez banged in a goal inside the right post and then made a sparkling corner kick that Nathan Holt knocked in to give the Crusaders their unbeaten conference season.
“For our first year in 2A and only having 110 kids in the school, it’s everything,” Crusaders coach Rick Frampton said. “I believe in my heart, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that we are in the toughest 2A conference in the state – and we went without a blemish in conference play.”
Chasing a state playoff berth, the Eagles (9-5-2, 3-3-1 EPIC) showed their mettle by overcoming a 1-0 halftime deficit. David McCullen tied the game in the 49th minute after a long, brilliant pass from Austin Lang, and Lang put his team up 2-1 with a header four minutes later.
Lang, overcoming a frustrating first half when he was whistled offside several times, had two chances to make it 3-1 but couldn’t get the ball in the net.
“It was a hard-fought game, back and forth,” Lang said. “I thought we had them, but after we scored, it went downhill. Mistakes, maybe. It was just all in our mind. Once they scored, it was kind of their game.”
And that’s the way Frampton wanted it. The Eagles picked up their intensity in the second half, and Frampton’s Crusaders didn’t respond right away.
“Today was a gut-check,” Frampton said. “They had to put a flashlight in their gut and see what they’re made of. I want that. The state tournament won’t be a cakewalk. I want to be pushed and want to find out what we’re made of.”
While the Crusaders are assured of a good seed when the playoff bracket is announced next week, the Eagles will have to wait to see if they’ve done enough to deserve a spot.
Eagles coach Roman Pibl believes they have, especially considering he starts seven sophomores.
“This (win) would’ve clearly got us in,” Pibl said. “Right now, we’re an eight or nine, but you never know. I’ve been on the committee for the girls, and it’s a very logical system, but it’s all about numbers. We should be in, but you never know until they tell you.”
At the end of last season, Pibl told his young team “the future is bright.” With the junior Lang emerging as one of the top offensive players in the area, Pibl repeated that phrase Thursday.
“We’ve done better than last year,” Lang said. “We’re doing well, and I think we’ll do well in the states if we make it.”