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Rams earn Final Four bid

AHOSKIE – Seems we’ve been here before.

Both Statesville Christian and Ridgecroft School had played soccer earlier this year at Mike Bryant Field – just not against each other. Both took two matches apiece in the Ridgecroft Invitational back in August, but Tuesday when they finally faced off much more was on the line – like a spot in the North Carolina Independent School Athletic Association state semi-finals Friday in Wilson.

In the end, Ridgecroft broke open a close match in the first half and prevailed, 5-2, to advance to the second state semi-final in school history.

Junior Ryan Beggs accounted for four goals while sophomore Michael Byrum scored the other as the fourth-seeded Rams won their 13th match of the year. Daniel Degraff and Daniel Willis scored a goal apiece for the fifth-seeded Lions who end their season at 10-11-2.

“It was a physical match,” said Rams’ coach Aron Martin, “and when so much is at stake everyone wants it. It was a war and though things broke down in the midfield more than I would have liked, the guys found a way to finish shots.”

The Rams outshot the Lions 7-to-5. Ridgecroft senior keeper Ethan Phelps stopped three shots while Austin McCarty of Statesville Christian turned away five attempts including a pair when he crashed into Rams players in front of the goal.

“I had challenged our guys,” said Statesville coach Marty Haneline. “We’re not normally a physical team, but we’d gotten knocked around quite a bit in our conference tournament so I told them to step it up.

“Unfortunately,” he added with a sigh, “our defense wasn’t that good and they were the better team today.”

The game was scoreless until the 10-minute mark when an Aaron Rock penalty kick curled its way toward the goal. The ball took a high bounce and Beggs found the back corner of the net with a header just past the outstretched Lions goalie for a 1-0 Ridgecroft lead.

The Rams came back to get a second goal just two-and-a-half minutes later as Byrum took a pass from Chase Riddick, beat his defender with a crossover dribble move and kicked in the second goal of the contest and staked the Rams to a 2-0 margin.

Just when the game looked as if Ridgecroft would have their way with the visitors, the Lions shook off the effects of the five-hour trip from the western Piedmont, and at the 13-minute mark Degraff slipped a one-bouncer past Phelps to get Statesville Christian on the board and cut the margin to 2-1.

The goal did more than awaken the Lions, the play became much more physical; and because there were only two referees for the half perhaps a bit tougher to officiate. Two yellow cards were issued for rough play and there were a total of five penalty kicks.

At the 27-minute mark, Ridgecroft went for their third score on a Byrum breakaway, but an alert McCarty stayed with the ball and the two players collided hard in front of the box before the Lions goal-keeper smothered the attempt.

Two minutes later, however, his effort was in vain as Beggs swooped in from the right side, took a crossing pass from Byrum and with a twisting move rifled a shot into the back of the twine for a 3-1 Rams lead.

Then at the 37-minute mark, Beggs found himself in open field on the pitch after beating the defenders and swooped in on a breakaway to make the score 4-1.

Byrum was going for more a minute later, and appeared to be fouled, but nothing was whistled, and his protest earned him Ridgecroft’s second yellow-card of the half. Ridgecroft then entered the break with a three-goal lead.

In the second half at the 46-minute mark, the Lions cut the lead in half as Willis’ goal banged in off the left post past Phelps and Statesville had trimmed the lead in half to 4-2.

Two minutes later, Statesville’s Blake Dunlap grabbed the jersey of a Ridgecroft player and was sent off after his second yellow card ended his day.

At the 70-minute mark, Beggs ended the scoring with Ridgecroft’s final goal of the match and the three-goal win sent the Rams (13-4-2) on to Wilson’s Gillette Athletic Complex this weekend and their shot at a state championship.

“I was not comfortable until we got that fifth goal,” said a relieved Martin. “Our distribution, the midfield play, the defense with Ethan in goal, we just got it done. It’s late in the season and we’re paced to peak at the right time.”

“With only two refs they missed a lot of stuff on the inside,” said a disappointed Haneline, “but the refs didn’t beat us. We just played too poorly in the back and I think with number-6 (Beggs) those boys have a pretty good chance at winning the state championship.”

Ridgecroft will be facing Greenfield School in the semi-finals and it’ll be their third meeting against the Knights. They tied, 1-1, during the first meeting in Wilson in September; then the Rams won a 5-4 overtime thriller in near-darkness just two weeks ago at Bryant Field.

“Another Greenfield-Ridgecroft saga,” said Martin with a grin. “They’ll have a slight home field advantage.

“But these folks,” he said motioning toward the still cheering Ridgecroft fans, “they’ll make the trip and we’ll have as many numbers as anyone there.”