Crusaders are champions again
Grace Christian's boys soccer team has played in the NCISAA 1A Carolina Christian Conference for three years. The Crusaders have been in the finals of the conference soccer tournament for all three years. On Friday afternoon, at Lee Christian – the host of this year’s tournament - the Crusaders (23-2-1) claimed their second straight tournament championship, beating Trinity Academy of Raleigh, 2-0.
Trinity Academy was the No. 2 seed in the tournament and suffered their only loss in conference play at the hands – or feet – of the Crusaders who bested them earlier in the season, 4-1.
Grace Christian began the match in its controlled frenzy style of play by possesing the ball beautifully, and five minutes into the match the Crusaders had two shots on goal and two corner kicks. The Tigers furiously attempted to prevent a goal by the Crusaders, but Grace Christian just missed finding the back of the net in the ninth minute of play.
“Trinity’s a great team. We had a lot of missed opportunities. I kept saying to get it out of the middle, get it wide, get it wide. In big games, we tend to forget who we are (in our style of play),” said Crusader head coach Chris Pratt.
Grace Christian’s sustained,ball possession prevented Trinity Academy from putting the Crusaders under much of any pressure on their own goal. It was not until around the 15th minute that the Tigers had their first real scoring opportunity.
If not for a great save by the Trinity Academy keeper, the Crusaders would have scored in the 22nd minute. In the 26th minute there was another missed scoring opportunity by Grace Christian, and again in the 28th minute when a shot sailed just over the crossbar.
Then in the 29th minute, the Crusaders broke into the scoring column on a goal by Salvador Leonidez from an assist by younger brother, Jose Leonidez.
After the Crusader goal, both teams battled back and forth until the match went to halftime with Grace Christian leading 1-0.
After talking to his team at the half, and making some adjustments, Pratt was pleased with how the Crusaders responded to begin the second half. He was particulary pleased when Salvador Leonidez scored his second goal of the match to stake the Crusaders to a 2-0 lead in the 42nd minute. Victor Mondragon assisted on the goal.
“We came out (of the half) and in the first minute or two we play our width four times, and we score one and almost score on another one. Then for 20 minutes we went back to (playing in) the middle (of the field), and I had to make some substitutions to talk to my players. But our width really helped us (to score)," Pratt said.
In the 46th minute, the Crusaders missed a penalty kick.
By the 54th minute, Trinity Academy began to figure out the Crusader system of play, and the Tigers limited Grace Christian’s dominance in possession of the ball. The Tigers began to have a sustained attack for short periods of time.
“Trinity’s a great team. My hat’s off to them. They’re a quality team,” said Pratt, who was earlier honored by his fellow conference coaches in being chosen as the CCC Coach of the Year.
“(The recognition is) probably not deserved because any time you’re blessed with talent, it makes the coach look good. That’s really for the players – they deserve it just as much as I do, if not moreso," he said.
The Crusaders, themselves, had a good amount of outstanding defensive play which, at the final whistle, earned them their 18th shutout of the season.
The following Grace Christian players were selected for the CCC All-Tournament Team: Ricardo Castaneda, Evan Kannarr, Hugo Lemus, and Jose Leonidez
The CCC Tournament MVP was Salvador Leonidez who was, also, the Carolina Christian Conference Player of the Year.
Before entering the NCISAA State Tournament the Crusaders will face one more opponent on Tuesday.
“We play Wake Christian, again. We tied them early on. Our guys want a little bit of revenge there,” Pratt said.
“I feel pretty confident we will get a number one seed (in the State Tournament). We’ve been there before. We know that every game from here on out will be a battle.”
Grace Christian will receive a bye in the first round and will play their first tournament match on Tuesday, Oct. 22 on its home field against the No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
In looking ahead to teams the Crusaders could meet in the state tourney, Pratt mentioned Carmel Christian (Matthews) and Hickory Christian from the west, and Ridgecroft Christian (Ahoskie) which is 17-0.
“Once you get into tournament play, it doesn’t really matter where you are seeded. A team gets momentum and works really hard, they can go a long way," he said.
Grace Christian has been in the NCISAA 1A Soccer State Tournament championship match the last two years. They lost to Ridgecroft Christian two years ago, and last year lost to Greenfield School.
The State Tournament finals will be at Greenfield School in Wilson.
Grace Christian is currently ranked #1 in the NCISAA 1A, according to Eurosport Scoreboard and Rivals.com.