The much maligned Winthrop defense, having given up eight goals in the past two games, appeared vastly improved during the first 70 minutes of play against the College of Charleston Cougars on Tuesday.
Yet it wasn't enough, as the 25th-ranked Cougars exploited two lulls in the Eagles defense late in the second half to defeat Winthrop 3-1.
The first half of regulation was a hotly-contested defensive struggle, with both teams combining for a total of three shots on goal. Winthrop's one shot on goal in the first half was a nicely placed shot by Miguel Casajuana, spurring Charleston goalkeeper Kees Heemskerk to make a diving stop to prevent a goal in the 41st minute.
A humorous moment occurred seconds later, as a corner kick by Charleston scoring specialist Sean De Silva led to an exchange between former teammates. Winthrop goalkeeper and recent College of Charleston transfer student Michael Flato, starting his first game for the Eagles, became tangled up with Charleston's Jake Helmig during a scramble for the ball at the front of the net. The two athletes shared a light-hearted embrace mid-game as the ball was fielded out of play, to the laughter and delight of the crowd.
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The first half came to a close with the score tied at 0 and Winthrop's hopes for an upset seemed obtainable. But that was when the game, and the Cougars' offensive attack, began to show the spark they've displayed all season.
Arguably the play of the night occurred in the 52nd minute of regulation, as a brilliant cross by CofC's Ralph Lundy led to a diving header by Shawn Ferguson from 6-feet out to finally break the stalemate.
Ferguson, a former Northwestern star, was part of a 2009 National Champion youth recreational squad with Cougar teammates Robbie Benson, Francis Twohig, Lundy and Tyler Vukoder, a Fort Mill grad.
In the same calendar year, Ferguson, along with fellow Northwestern Trojan Benson (who sat out Tuesday night's game with a broken leg) won a state championship for the Trojans, being declared national champions as well.
Though Ferguson's goal Tuesday night opened the game up for the Cougars, Winthrop answered right back minutes later. Winthrop's Casajuana bent a penalty kick through the diving grasp of Heemskerk to score from 20 yards out to even the score at 1 in the 54th minute, electrifying the home crowd. It was Casajuana's fourth goal in as many games against College of Charleston.
But the Cougars' offense was not to be denied, as the stretches of offensive explosiveness that have defined their season finally came to pass. In the 78th minute, Charleston's De Silva scored an uncontested goal off a shot initially deflected by Flato.
Three minutes later, Helmig added to the lead by scoring off his own rebounded shot to make it a 3-1 lead over Winthrop with less than 10 minutes left to play, signaling the end of the Eagles promising performance.
The College of Charleston Cougars are now 10-2-2 on the season, and Tuesday's victory was the 12th consecutive non-loss for the ranked team. Winthrop fell to 4-8-1 to add to its frustrating season.