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Shocking end

WILSON – Another Gillette close shave – and another cut that made it bleed.

For the second straight year Coastal Plains Independent Conference rivals Ridgecroft School and Greenfield School faced off against each other at the Burt Gillette Soccer complex Saturday in Wilson in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 1-A soccer playoffs, but this time it was for the championship.

And again, it was Greenfield the victor.

With an ending that surprised the winners as much as it shocked the losers, the top-seeded Rams fell 3-2 to a team they had beaten twice in the regular season.  The final result giving the Knights their 12th state title and fourth in a row.

“These boys have given me everything they had, some of them for six years now,” said disappointed, but visibly proud Ridgecroft coach Aron Martin, “and in my mind – they’re champions.

“It’s a very difficult pill to swallow,” he added, the emotion cracking in his voice. “I really wanted them to taste this as hard as they worked.”

In 2009, Ridgecroft led the semi-final late only to see the Knights rally to tie the match and then win it in overtime, 5-3.

This year, up 2-1 with less than 13 minutes to play, the Rams saw Greenfield come back to first tie the contest then win it with just over a minute to play on an own-goal as the winning shot on a free kick glanced off a Ridgecroft player into the back of the net.

That cut was the deepest.

With a loud and boisterous crowd of over 250 fans and spectators surrounding the pitch Greenfield scored the first goal of the contest off the opening face-off as Mark Dandanell took a crossing pass from Jordan Sharpe and sent a quick shot past diving Rams goalie Jordan Harrell into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.

Ridgecroft tried to get back with two early chances, but a Michael Byrum shot sailed just wide and over the crossbar and Knights goalie Gary Phillips got his hand on a Max Boone shot to just barely swat it away.

Play was tight and physical in the early minutes with a player from each team receiving a yellow card.

But Ridgecroft’s best advantage was their size in the front-court, and with just over 13 minutes left in the half, senior Ryan Beggs took a pass from fellow-senior Aaron Rock and slammed a bullet into the twine to knot the score at 1-1.

The Rams continued to play aggressively, but could not muster another score before the break.  Beggs, Byrum, and Rock all had shots – a total of four between them – but their effort could find the net.

Ridgecroft clearly had the momentum, but just couldn’t capitalize.

They kept it up in the second half as Harrell made a leaping stop on a Greenfield breakaway to preserve the tie.

Then, eight minutes into the half, Rock made a spin move on a pair of Knights defenders about 30 yards from the net and rocked in a shot to give Ridgecroft their first lead of the match, 2-1, and send the already excited Rams fans into frenzy.

But with the lead also came a coaching move by Martin: moving the taller Beggs into the back midfield for defense as Greenfield seized command and outshot the Rams, six-to-two.

Defenders Austin Britton and Nathan Pearce used their size advantage to help with stops, but one of them had to come off due to cramping and that’s when Greenfield saw an opening and took advantage.

Goal-keeper Harrell, who finished with six total saves, including stopping a pair of free kicks, found himself facing off alone on a breakaway with the Knights’ Clayton Stakes and Stakes finally got one to zip in past Harrell with 13 minutes to play and the game was tied again, this time at 2-2.

With the tie, Rigecroft appeared to play tight. Two Rams players received yellow cards and Wilson County Sheriff’s deputies had to issue more than one warning to fans from both sides to remain on good behavior.

The clock ticked down to less than two minutes and many spectators were anticipating overtime.  But on a questionable holding call, the officials conferred and Greenfield was awarded a free kick on the right side with 1:12 left to play.

Stakes lined up for the kick as the crowd drew silent.  He then lifted a shot that hit the left post and caromed back into the field where a Rams defender appeared to knock it away, but the ball somehow remained only a foot away from the net.

As another Ridgecroft defender flailed at the loose bouncing ball in an attempt to stop it, it appeared to bounce off his leg, trickle into the net, and suddenly Greenfield players and fans went from stunned silence and disbelief to shouts and cheers at what was just incredible luck.

Ridgecroft players collapsed on the field, some shouted at the refs, but it was what it was.

The Rams tried desperately to muster a shot off the final face-off, but to no avail as the precious seconds ticked away and with the final whistle fans in green-and-gold stormed the field while the players and fans in blue-and-white just collapsed in disappointment and fatigue.

“When they changed the formation after taking the lead we got a little life,” said Knights coach Ben Forbes, who’s team outshot the Rams 16-to-eight.. “It seemed once we tied it up they were just back on their heels.”

“You go eleven-on-eleven they were better than us,” he added. “But I’ve beaten teams that were better than us before.  This was just our day and as they say, ‘Sometimes the third time’s a charm.'”

“It was what it was,” sighed Martin, “and what it was was a very unfortunate series of events for us today.

“But I want to reiterate to these boys,” he said nodding toward the bench where some players sat dejectedly, “that I admire them, I love them and I’m proud of them.

“Things didn’t work out, but it doesn’t take away from the dedication and hard work these young men have put in,” he continued. “You saw from their play out there how much they wanted it….And I wanted it for them.”

(By Gene Motley, Sports Writer)