The Clover boys’ soccer team may have spurned a few opportunities during Monday night’s 1-0 win over Nation Ford, but a pack of Blue Eagles didn’t miss coach Graham Stafford with a cooler of water after a win that clinched the Region 3-4A title.
Senior back Bailey Bottini shaped a fine pass into the path of Fernando Alpizar-Ramos and the midfielder held his nerve, toe-poking the ball past Nation Ford keeper Cooper Morris in the 13th minute for the only goal of the game. Eighth-ranked Clover (17-5, 10-1 Region 3-4A) then withstood No. 5-ranked Nation Ford’s aerial assault to complete the season sweep of the Falcons and clinch a No. 1 seed in next week’s playoffs.
“I always thought we had a talented program but in my second year to be where we are, we’re over the moon,” said Clover coach Graham Stafford. “The boys have bought into the philosophy of how I want them to be.”
The goal was obviously crucial, but so too was Clover’s 11th shutout in 22 games.
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“We’re trying to be a stingy team that only needs a few opportunities to win the game,” said Stafford.
The full-sized field at Clover should have been a perfect surface for Nation Ford’s Kevin Garces to display his speed, but the Falcon winger never got the service he needed to cause the Blue Eagles problems.
“If we would have gone wider where the space was, then I think we’d have had a different result,” said Nation Ford coach Jon Jarrett. “Everything was over the top toward the middle, and Robert (Schreiner) is too good a keeper for that.”
Garces showed his threat early, thumping a volley toward the Clover goal that was deflected for a corner. But he mustered few opportunities from there on.
The next glaring chance fell to Clover but Manny Vargas, in on goal and one-on-one with Nation Ford keeper Cooper Morris, held on to the ball too long and Morris smothered.
The Blue Eagles took their next opportunity, though, and it was Alpizar-Ramos popping up with another vital goal for the Clover cause. On the right, Bottini pushed forward from the Clover defense and curled a pass into Alpizar-Ramos, who lunged a leg at the ball and prodded it past Morris at the last second.
“Fernando was making a great run and at that point there was no other ball I could play,” said Bottini, who will play college soccer at Lander.
Morris kept the score 1-0 about 10 minutes later, parrying over a flying half volley from Clover’s Dylan Jones. And Blue Eagles keeper Robert Schreiner kept his team in front with consecutive saves in a matter of moments, pushing Blake Baker’s header out before holding Ben Tuipulotu’s firm header off the ensuing corner.
A Tuipulotu – Ben or Hank – was usually the target of the many long balls the Falcons (15-3-1, 9-2) pumped into the Clover defensive end, a trend that only increased in the second half. But the physically smaller hosts held firm.
“It was rough, but you just got to keep concentrated, stay in it when you can and just keep up the hard work,” said Bottini. “This being my senior season I won’t get another chance at this, so you have to give it everything you can and don’t back down from anyone.”
Nation Ford poured on the pressure in the second half, Caleb Bruckner firing low straight at Schreiner, before the keeper flapped at Tyler Jarrett’s dangerous cross, only for it to fly out of play. Clover could have doubled the lead about 12 minutes into the second half when Brandon LaForge made a 50-yard run at the Falcon goal, before shooting into the netting the wrong side of the post.
Garces was quiet for much of the game but a series of spins and cuts nearly reminded the crowd of what he could do. The shot was deflected at the last second, taking out the sting and allowing Schreiner to gather comfortably.
Arguably Nation Ford’s best chance came when Terrell Stauffer intercepted a wayward Clover pass in midfield and surged toward goal with a four-on-three situation in the Falcons’ favor. But his pass was a tad late to Garces on the left. The speedster fired wide and high, and the Blue Eagles regrouped.
“One extra touch and by the time he hit it he played it sideways,” said Jarrett. “Hit it a little sooner and we were in.”
That was the visitors’ last best crack at goal, and when the final whistle blew, Blue Eagles flocked on to the field, some of them chasing their coach with a big orange jug of ice water.
Clover won the region title in Bottini’s freshman year as well, but he felt this year’s squad felt different and more satisfying.
“We have a really deep roster, we’re very, very close as a team, we work hard together. This is a real team effort,” said Bottini. “Everyone’s involved instead of two players that score 28 and 20 goals. I think this team definitely has a better team atmosphere, and with that, a better chance of going deep in the playoffs.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T