Crusaders start season looking for one more step
Grace Christian's reached, but fallen, the NCISAA 1A state final match each of the last two boys' soccer seasons. This season's Crusader roster has 10 seniors, by far the most experienced group head coach Chris Pratt has led in his time at Grace Christian.
He expects his squad to be, and believes it is, the hungriest team he's had because of the two runner-up seasons.
While the Crusaders opened their regular season with a 5-1 victory over visiting O'Neal Monday afternoon, the match gave Pratt and the Crusaders something to measure themselves by.
For starters, O'Neal had a 13-5 mark and a 7-3 record in the 2A Cape Fear Independent Conference a season ago; reaching the first round of the NCISAA 2A state tourney. The Falcons beat Grace Christian 4-2 last August and the Crusaders didn't have a win in their series with the Falcons until Monday.
More to the point for Pratt's current charges, O'Neal forward J.R. Moore chased down a long pass which split two Crusader defenders, then bounced a shot by Crusader keeper Hugo Lemus for a 1-0 Falcon lead 1:04 into the match.
Grace Christian's constant pressing after the ball, with a five-man back line often holding a line at or near the midfield stripe, played a part in yielding a goal. As the last 79 minutes played out, it also created plenty of Crusader possession and attacking.
The Crusaders evened the match in the 13th minute. After already working for a couple of bursts into the O'Neal box, Jose Leonidez did so again down the right side before chipping the ball across the goal where Salvador Leonidez volleyed the ball putting it just under the crossbar.
More quick attacking gave the Crusaders the lead a little more than four minutes later. Ricardo Castronedas hit a low, driven shot from outside the box. From a deflection, Evan Kannar was in the right spot racing in toward the left post to poke the ball into the net.
More than tactics or athleticism, the Crusader coach was happy with his side's mentality to shrug off falling behind right away.
"It says a lot about my guys to come back from something like that in the first game. That's our character. That's having 10 seniors who've been on the team and know how to win," Pratt said.
"The biggest thing we're trying to teach is how to play with composure," Pratt said. "In tight games, composure is going to be the difference because we have the talent."
Sophomore Zach Boggs scored the next two Crusader goals. He won a long ball a little inside O'Neal's half of the field before taking a 30-yard strike which, while well struck, bounded through the Falcon keeper's hands and wickets to find the net, making it 3-1 in the 25th minute.
Boggs got his second in finer fashion in the 38th minute. Joel Benitez chipped a pass past the Falcon back line for Boggs to sprint for, then chip a first-touch shot by the onrushing keeper into the net.
The Crusaders kept most of the play in the Falcon half for the second 40 minutes. They added the fifth goal with less than six minutes remaining. Castronedas set up the play with a dribbling display along the left end line, then a pass setting up Nathan Holt to bend a shot inside the far, right post.
All five Crusader goals came in the run of play, as Grace Christian outshot O'Neal 22-9 overall. The margin could've been wider had the Crusaders converted on some of their many corner kicks or free kicks. Lemus, a senior, finished with three saves.
"After two runner-ups, this team, especially the seniors, want it bad," Pratt said.
With the goal in mind since last November, Pratt said he put together the toughest schedule he could. The Crusaders have two tests in two days Thursday and Friday, versus two NCISAA 3A schools, at Wake Christian at 6 p.m. Thursday and at North Raleigh Christian at 7 p.m. Friday.