Here’s the deal: We’re going to get through this whole story without using the cliche “third time is the charm,” because Indian Land boys’ soccer coach Adam Cole is well aware it might not be.
His Warriors, ranked No. 2 in the state, are back in the 2A state championship game for the third year running, and if the previous two fruitless trips have taught him anything, it’s that nothing is given in the state championship game. Getting back to the final is still something to savor, even if it’s become a regular occurrence at Indian Land.
“It’s definitely been a goal of ours, ever since that third overtime ended in that last state championship,” said Cole. “We knew we’d have some good talent coming up, and we keep getting closer and closer each year. It’s just been progressively getting better, so we’re hoping that the third time...”
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The Warriors’ opponent on Saturday at 1 p.m. at River Bluff High School again comes from the Lowcountry, No. 1-ranked Academic Magnet. These two aren’t strangers. The Raptors beat Indian Land 5-0 in the 2011-12 final, but only two Warriors remain from that team, keeper Jake Barton and striker Jordan Szustwal.
Lingering memories of the Raptors’ lopsided win shouldn’t be an issue. Indian Land will start seven sophomores on Saturday, none of whom were even in high school in 2012.
One of the key cogs for Indian Land this season, after losing seven starters from last season’s team that came so close before succumbing to Bishop England in the final after three overtimes, has been 10th-grade midfielder Garrett Gerdes. The Warriors’ metronome in the midfield, the spindly 6-foot-4 Gerdes pulls the midfield strings for Indian Land and can do a bit of everything. He’s scored 15 goals and assisted 14 more, while earning Region 4-AA Player of the Year honors.
“Garrett’s definitely our leader,” said Cole about the player who scored in last year’s final as a freshman. “Everything pretty much revolves around him as far as our attack goes.”
Szustwal has been on the end of a number of Gerdes’ decisive passes, leading the team with 25 goals, and adding 13 assists to boot. He scored two minutes into the Upper State championship win over Saluda on Tuesday to immediately put the Warriors on the front foot.
“He’s still our leading scorer and he missed nine games with a hamstring injury,” said Cole. “We’re gonna look to him to be an offensive threat as well.”
Jumping ahead early on an Academic Magnet defense led by four-time All-State keeper Brady Allardice won’t be easy. Allardice, signed with Furman, has only allowed eight goals in 25 matches this season. He also scored the winning penalty to push Academic Magnet past Bishop England in the quarterfinals last week.
The Warrior defense, outside of keeper Barton, is relatively young. That hasn’t prevented them from keeping 12 clean sheets.
Both sides in Saturday’s championship have been tested this season. Indian Land won six matches against 4A sides and have won five straight overall since a 6-3 loss to South Pointe May 6; Academic Magnet won four against 4A opponents, while beating or tying a who’s who of Palmetto State prep soccer powers.
“Those games helped us a lot because it showed us what talent level is out there,” said Gerdes.
Cole said he’s spoken with eight different coaches that played Academic Magnet this year and the report was generally the same: They’re very good, they’re fast, and they pass well.
“Our goal every year is the state championship,” Academic Magnet coach Jason Hamil told the Charleston Post and Courier earlier this week. “All the other wins are nice and everything, but our goal every year is the state championship.”
Three other 2A teams have been to three straight boys soccer state finals, after losing the first two. Chapin, Bishop England and Emerald all lost the third. But Chapin bounced back to win its next two, while Bishop England embarked on a run the following year of four state titles (2005-09). Since Emerald lost to Bishop England in ’09, that team hasn’t yet returned to the state championship.
To develop an annual championship expectation like Academic Magnet’s, Indian Land has to win the elusive first state title.
“The first year, it was all about experience; we were happy to be there and get over that hump,” said Cole. “Last year just really opened our eyes. Public school, private school, it doesn’t matter, we can hang with them. So that’s the thing we’ve taken from these last two years; we’re experienced and now we have confidence.”