Crusaders push win streak to seven
Despite three road tests in a four-day span this week, and having played five of their last six matches on the road, Grace Christian's boys' soccer squad ran its winning streak to seven matches with wins over Neuse Christian, 10-1, Cary Academy, 3-0, and Trinity Academy, 4-0.
Crusader head coach Chris Pratt challenged his team at the beginning of the week to stay focused, hungry and disciplined and the Crusaders responded well.
On Tuesday, the Crusaders traveled to Raleigh and routed Carolina Christian opponent Neuse Christian. The Crusaders played without starting backs Sam Holt, Victor Mondragon and Griffin Scully.
"I didn’t know what to expect,” said Pratt. “I didn’t know a lot about Neuse. But, I knew we were down three starters and I knew my guys would have to step up.”
Jose Leonidez collected his first hat trick of the season. Ricardo Castanedas and Evan Kannarr scored two goals each. Salvador Leonidez had a goal along with three assists.
Two days later, the Crusaders traveled to Cary to take on NCISAA 3A power Cary Academy. The two schools had split the last two meetings, with Grace Christian winning last year 2-1 on a last-minute goal.
Once again, the Crusaders played without Scully. Senior Isaac Kruger stepped in and filled the void left by Scully.
In the 14th minute, a free kick from Castanedas found Salvador Leonidez, who placed the ball in the goal with his left foot from 12 yards out to give Grace a 1-0 lead.
In the second half, the Crusaders applied more midfield pressure and the aggressiveness paid off in the 44th minute. Joel Benitez bent a corner kick into the box and Salvador Leonidez headed the ball past the Cary keeper to increase the lead to 2-0. Grace kept the pressure on and in the 70th minute, Jose Leonidez found Castanedas who blasted the ball into the goal to finish the scoring.
“We beat a quality squad today,” said Pratt. “The guys made some adjustments at the half and really played well.”
On Friday, Grace Christian, the defending CCC season and tournament champs, faced its strongest conference opponent at Trinity Academy.
Trinity, which has made the state tournament each of the last seven years, entered the match 4-0 in the CCC.
From the beginning, the Crusaders applied a lot of pressure and hit the post twice in the first 10 minutes. Kruger struck a free kick from 30 yards out that hit off the post, and he hit the post again in the 14th minute. In the 20th minute, Salvador Leonidez took a free kick from 24 yards out and buried it in the Tiger goal for a 1-0 Crusader lead.
Five minutes later, Salvador Leonidez sent another ball into the box. Kannarr headed a shot on goal and a Trinity defender batted the ball out with his hands leading to a Crusader penalty kick. Benitez made the penalty kick for a 2-0 Crusader lead, which was the score at halftime.
“I thought we played okay in the first half,” said Pratt. “We outshot them 16-3 for the half, but were having trouble finishing.”
Trinity's Alex Lin scored with a 36-yard shot in the 46th minute cutting Grace's lead to 2-1.
The Trinity goal seemed to motivate the Crusaders and from that point on, Grace Christian outshot Trinity 20-0.
Salvador Leonidez headed in Griffin Scully's free kick for a goal, making it 3-1 Crusaders in the 48th minute. In the 56th minutes, Castanedas crossed a ball and Kannarr scored with a header.
For the last 17 minutes, Pratt played a lot of his bench and rested many of his starters.
“We had a tough week and I am blessed to coach 21 guys who can play for us at any time,” said Pratt. “I’ve never had as deep of a bench as I have this year. With our senior leadership, this team is doing some great things.”
The Crusaders (11-2-1, 4-0-0) are top-ranked in the state in NCISAA 1A. Grace Christian will host Cape Fear Christian at 5 p.m. Tuesday before hosting defending state champion Greenfield at 5 p.m. Thursday.