Three unanswered goals by the Nation Ford Falcons allowed them to beat the Clover Blue Eagles 3-1 in the 5A Upper State Championship to send them to the state finals Saturday. Nation Ford swept the season series with Clover, but both matches were close. The third one was expected to be the same, as head coach for the Falcons’ Jon Jarrett knew it would be tough to beat a team three times in one season, especially with a state finals spot on the line.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jarrett said. “I can’t fathom going to a state championship. This is a group of guys that have worked hard. This group has great chemistry.”
The match-up drew the largest crowd for Nation Ford on the season, with a multitude of Clover fans turning out in droves for the game as well. The crowds for both schools were about evenly split and Nation Ford sold over 1,000 tickets for the match, Jarrett said.
“I told our guys to put on a show,” Jarrett said. “I told them this would be the biggest crowd they would probably every play in front of.”
Nation Ford controlled the pace in the early going to open the game holding possessions and not allowing Clover manly touches. The Falcons got an early corner kick, but Clover came away with the ball. Nation Ford also got an early free kick, but again the Blue Eagles were able to stop them.
The Falcons got their first direct shot at the goal about 12 minutes into the game on a breakaway by Ben Tuipulotu, however, Clover keeper Justin Watkins was there to make the save. Nation Ford had several more chances off a couple throw-ins, but the Blue Eagles were able to hold them off.
Despite the lack of opportunities, Clover did break through first as Brandon Malcolm scored 18 minutes into the contest after catching Falcons’ keeper Ryan Halas leaning one way as opposed to the other and rocketing a shot past him. From that point forward, Clover started to get more touches and started controlling the game more.
The second half started with a back and forth battle between the two teams as neither was able to gain a strong hold on the ball. Nation Ford got a corner kick about seven minutes into the second half, but failed to score. Clover had a good look about three minutes later, but Halas made a huge save to set up a corner kick for the Blue Eagles. The shot opportunities for Clover were there more in the second half than the first, but they were equally tough to convert.
As the second half wore on, the intensity in the match picked up. With the score tied at one, Nation Ford got one of their better looks in the second half on a corner kick by Steven Halas which found Curtis Johnson for the goal to put the Falcons up 2-1. Nation Ford added to their lead five minutes later with a goal from Charter Richardson to really put the game out of reach for Clover. “We are a very young team,” said Clover head coach Graham Stafford. “This is actually a rebuilding year for us. We only have three seniors and lost 11 seniors from last year’s team. It just wasn’t our night. It wasn’t our year. I am very proud of my team.”
Nation Ford stayed on the attack, but defensively Clover was sharper at intercepting passes and stopping the Falcons at their back line. The Falcons certainly had more clear shot opportunities with free kicks and throw-ins in the first half, although, the Blue Eagles were prepared at each shot for most of the time. However, all those chances finally paid off as Nation Ford’s Jake Cubine would score to tie the game about the 38 minute mark in the half on a 48-yard free kick making it a tie game at the half.
Nation Ford will now face Wando 7 p.m. Saturday night at Irmo High School for a state championship. According to MaxPreps, Wando is currently ranked second in the nation, first in 5A in the state and has a 27-0 record on the season.