One very quick goal on a penalty kick and another demoralizer late in the first half had Cleveland reeling.
And despite an otherwise solid 80 minutes, the Rams fell 2-0 to Eastern Alamance on a cool Wednesday night at the Brady Complex in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A soccer playoffs.
Eastern (21-3) will play in the quarterfinals, probably on Saturday, against the survivor between Fayetteville Terry Sanford and Southern Lee. This is the deepest Eastern’s senior class has gone in the playoffs.
Cleveland (18-4-1) saw its best season in school history, which included a regular-season win over top-seeded Wilson Hunt (which is already eliminated), come to a close a little earlier than the Rams had hoped.
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“Everyone did a great job the whole year, and we may not have anyone who is going to play college soccer,” second-year Cleveland coach Nick Gruhn said. “The guys stepped up the whole year and grinded. We had a lot of the same group last year and we just kept building and building and building.
“Tonight we controlled for long stretches of the game, but their keeper made good saves and they stayed very organized defensively in the second half. It went in for them and not for us. The first goal was tough, but our guys really battled. The second goal hurt. We kept turning it up and could have gotten back into the game, but we just never got there.”
Ethan Fellows had five saves for the Rams, while Matt Fenton stopped seven in the shutout.
“Getting this far is a very big deal,” said second-year Eastern coach Lori Gilliam, one of a tiny number of women head coaches of boys’ high school teams in North Carolina. “The guys on the team have been playing together since they were really young.
“Our seniors have helped us have great chemistry, but the freshmen and sophomores have clicked great with the seniors. I knew our teams were going to be pretty even. We just had the ball go in for us.”
The Mid-State 3A champion Eagles jumped on top quickly, as Cole Burton beat Ethan Fellows left side on a penalty kick in the second minute.
“That was definitely huge,” said Eastern’s 6-4 senior forward and captain Jacob Mann, who is also a key post player on the Eagles’ basketball team. “The past two games we’ve come out and gotten early goals, which is crucial. We got them on their heels and we were relaxed, and that made a big difference.”
And Reyes Rojas added a cushion from the top of the box in the 36th, with Sawyer Covington on the helper.
“It was hard to give up that first goal like that, but we kept battling and playing hard,” Cleveland senior defender Garrett Lee said. “We’ve had to play that way as a team all season long, and I’m really proud of all the guys.”
Added classmate and midfielder Tanner Costine, “I think a lot of the guys are like me, like on that NCAA commercial we’re eventually going pro in something other than soccer. But we didn’t give up when we got behind, and played them even most of the game.”