The Clover Blue Eagles surrendered three goals Thursday night that they will that they will try to erase from their memories, part of a 5-0 loss to Dutch Fork in the second round of the 4A boys’ soccer playoffs.
It was a dismal conclusion to a great season for the hosts, Clover. Ironically for a team that had been defensively air-tight all season, it was defensive miscues that led to the Blue Eagles’ demise.
“The goals were just very, very strange. Maybe it was just a sign that it wasn’t meant to be for us this year,” said Clover coach Graham Stafford.
Dutch Fork’s first goal, a Blue Eagles (19-6) own goal with seconds left in the first half, summed up the night. Keeper Robert Schreiner swung and missed on an awkward back pass laden with top-spin. The ball’s agonizing path ended nestled inside the left post leaving the Clover players, bench, coaches, fans, everyone, shocked.
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“It was a very, very tight half, which I thought we shaded slightly, and a freak whiff from a very, very strong keeper, ball goes in and we’re down at the half 1-nil,” said Stafford.
That followed a strong start from the Blue Eagles. Clover left back Caleb Costner was wearing a rut in the left wing of the field, whipping in several good crosses, though none of them found Blue Eagles boots at the end.
“First 10 or 15 minutes they had a lot of good chances, they attacked us pretty good,” said Dutch Fork (15-8-1) coach Todd Woodward. “I think once we settled down we got the game flowing pretty good and changed the pace.”
Dutch Fork’s first good chance came in the 24th minute when speedy forward Rex Epps nearly set up his strike partner, but the Silver Foxes didn’t have to wait long for an even better opportunity. Costner went into a 50-50 challenge aggressively but was judged to have fouled the Dutch Fork player in the box. Rett Stevens hammered his left-footed penalty off the right post and Epps’ follow sailed over.
The visitors did end the first half in front, though, through the own goal by Clover. It was hard to decide which goal was more harmful to the Blue Eagles, that one or the gut punch that came 10 minutes into the second half. Dutch Fork’s Marshall University signee Stevens stepped in front of a soft sideways pass in the Clover back line and slotted a low finish past the onrushing keeper for a 2-0 lead.
With desperation soaking into the Clover shirts, the Blue Eagles put the kettle on boil. Silver Foxes freshman keeper Grayson Horton made a sharp reflex save before Clover defender Christian Berardo made sweet contact with the ensuing corner only to blast over from close range. And center-back Adam Watkins poured forward, driving a lined effort over the bar.
Dutch Fork put the game to bed with its third goal. Keeper Schreiner missed a corner into the box, the ball was hooked back into the six-yard area and Pedro Granados nodded in before the scrambling keeper could fully recover.
“Robbie’s had a stellar high school career, and it’s gonna hurt him that he’s gone out this way,” Stafford said about Schreiner, who will play college soccer at Francis Marion but was noticeably crushed after the game Thursday.
With Clover committed to the attack and exposed at the back, Epps, who will play college soccer at Army, showed his pace, racing away, rounding Schreiner and sliding home the fourth with eight minutes left.
Before the Silver Foxes were finished celebrating they had a fifth. A similar through-ball found Andrew Gallagher and he too went around Schreiner and rolled home to gloss the final tally.
The Silver Foxes advance to face J.L. Mann, while Clover will try and come to grips with its season’s conclusion. It will take weeks and maybe months for the Blue Eagles to gain some perspective and be able to look back on the fine season they had without first thinking of the final game.
“I’m really proud of the season, really proud of the boys,” said Stafford. “We’ve done a good account of ourselves, got our program on the map. I couldn’t be more proud as a coach.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T