The Cleveland boys soccer team has used an approach this season centered around a strong goalkeeper, an experienced and cohesive defense and an opportunistic counterattack in order to obtain a school record number of wins and a conference title.
That approach was once again effective Saturday night as the Rams defeated Hillsborough Cedar Ridge 3-0 to advance to the third round of the NCHSAA 3A state playoffs.
Cedar Ridge conceded an own goal 63 seconds after the opening whistle on an errant clearance attempt off of a Tanner Costine corner kick, which played even more into the strength of the Two Rivers 3A Conference champions.
Able to sit back, the Rams absorbed the pressure thrown their way by the Red Wolves and countered when necessary.
“They put a lot of pressure on us but it came in waves so a lot of props to our defense to holding off those waves,” Costine said. “Because you can’t play that hard and fast all game, when they slowed down, that’s when we’d get the counter.”
Cleveland doubled its lead on such a counter when Lawson Lamm secured the ball on the right wing before crossing the ball ahead of Josue Perez in the 43rd minute.
Perez controlled himself at the top of the box, pushed the ball to his right foot and looped a shot over Cedar Ridge goalie Brendan Boss for his 19th goal of the year and the 2-0 lead.
“They were doing a great job trying to steal momentum and were pressing us really hard and we just needed to release the opposite side of the field to relieve the pressure,” Cleveland coach Nicholas Gruhn said. “That’s where they would be exposed because they were coming up so hard from the back.”
Despite throwing a lot of effort and numbers into the attack, Cedar Ridge found it difficult to muster anything close to a good effort at goal.
The Wolves’ leading goal scorer, Ivan Carbajal, who had found little room to operate all evening, finally got past the Rams defense midway through the second half, but his shot glanced harmlessly off of the crossbar.
Cleveland goalkeeper Ethan Fellows needed only to come up with three saves on the game to record his seventh shutout of the season.
“They have a good defense back there and when we would have bad touches down there outside the 18, they cleaned up well,” said Cedar Ridge coach Chris Walker. “With their discipline as good as it was and our hesitation at getting the ball off our feet…. it all spells disaster when you start off down.”
Costine sealed the game in the 61st minute as Cleveland (18-3-1) pinned the Wolves down in their own end before Lamm slid the ball to Costine who first saw daylight and then saw his strike to the far post nestle nicely inside the post for the final score line.
Despite the loss, Cedar Ridge (13-6-2) is headed in the right direction after their performance this season surprised even their third-year coach.
“This year, they came together,” Walker said. “We won a lot of games and our goal was to get three-game winning streaks, as many as we could. That led us to where we are now. Tonight was just a night when it just didn’t click.”
The Rams, now 13-0-1 at home, will go on the road to play No. 4 seed Eastern Alamance.
Gruhn sees his team’s winning formula as able to travel well.
“We’re good in the back, we play good team defense, we have a midfield that supports the defense and closes off the extra space and we have a solid goalkeeper,” Gruhn said. “When we go on the road, that’s something we can lean on.”