Crusaders win first state title
Grace Christian scored two goals in the last five minutes of overtime to win its first NCISAA soccer state championship with a 4-2 victory over Hickory Christian Saturday afternoon at Greenfield School.
The third time was the charm for the Crusaders (27-2-1), who reached the NCISAA 1A state final but lost each of the last two seasons. The championship match was full of major twists and turns as the top-ranked Crusaders were challenged by a squad they defeated 5-0 back in August.
Hickory Christian took the lead in the first half and scored an equalizing goal with seven minutes left in the second half.
Joe Urrutia scored, finishing a cross from Victor Mondragon, to give the Crusaders a 3-2 lead in the 95th minute.
In the final minute, Mondragon converted a penalty kick for the 4-2 final.
“It’s amazing. I couldn’t be happier for this group of guys,” said Grace Christian head coach Chris Pratt.
The Crusaders overcame plenty in the final, including how the opponent played, Pratt said.
“They were very, very tough. Hickory’s a very big team, as far as size,” he said. Hickory Christian was also missing two key attacking players when Grace Christian beat them in Sanford early in the season.
The Crusaders played through their own injury issues Saturday. Ricardo Castaneda, one of the top forwards all season for the Crusaders, missed the semifinal and final due to a hamstring injury. Mondragon was limited due to injury, but on the field when it counted most. Salvador Leonidez, who assisted on the first Crusader go-ahead goal of the match, suffered cramping and missed most of the 20-minute overtime.
The Crusaders missed a penalty kick in the fifth minute, followed by Hickory Christian’s Casey Broome scoring on a penalty kick in the 30th minute. The score remained 1-0 to halftime.
“I told them, ‘how we respond here will tell us about our character,’” Pratt said.
The Crusaders struggled to play to their strengths, Pratt said, but got back to having good possession and quick passing in time to turn the match around.
Evan Kannarr broke the program’s goal record, finishing off a pass from Zach Boggs for his 73rd career goal and 25th of the season to make it 1-1 early in the second half.
In the 63rd minute, Salvador Leonidez played a lofted pass across the field to Sergio Charco and Charco blasted a 30-yard shot into the net for a 2-1 Crusader lead.
Broome scored his second goal, heading a cross from a long free kick into the Crusader net to tie the match with seven minutes remaining in regulation.
Giving up the tying goal was a tough blow, Pratt said, but his players regrouped when they had to.
“Our fouls led to both of (Hickory Christian’s) goals,” he said. “We were playing hard, that certainly wasn’t the problem, I told them, we just have to play smarter.”
Good ball movement, from Pedro Martinez to Mondragon down the right side of the field, then Mondragon sending the ball from near the corner flag into the penalty box, set up Urrutia for the key goal.
With injuries and 100 minutes of action, subs played a huge role in the victory, Pratt said.
“Isaac Kruger and Brandon Monroy really stepped up and played big,” he said.
Senior goalkeeper Hugo Lemus made five saves for the Crusaders. The Crusaders had 17 shots on goal.
In Friday’s semifinal versus Ridgecroft (19-1) from Ahoskie, Salvador Leonidez and his younger brother Jose Leonidez scored two goals each leading the Crusaders to a 6-0 win.
Urrutia and Boggs scored one goal each. Mondragon and Jose Leonidez had two assists each.
Salvador Leonidez and defender/midfielder Joel Benitez, both seniors, were named NCISAA All-State players. Leonidez set single-season school records for assists (30) and points this season. The Crusaders won their last 23 matches on the way to the championship.