By Kyle LoJacono
The boys and girls soccer games between Freedom and Gaither on Jan. 4 were near carbon copies of each other.
The Cowboys dominated the pace of play for most of the evening, but the Patriots capitalized on their opportunities to sweep the Class 4A-District 8 contests. The Freedom boys (5-6-1) won 1-0, while the girls (9-3-2) were 2-0 victors.
The wins were more than just another W on their record as they secure the No. 2 seeds for both Patriots squads in the 4A-8 tournaments.
“We always like playing them because they’re very similar to us in skill,” said Freedom forward Alyssa Daniello. “It’s been a great rivalry, so we always come in really pumped up. It’s a really great feeling to come out on top.”
The loss locks the Gaither boys (11-4-1) into the No. 3 seed, while the girls (5-6-1) are the No. 4.
The district rankings have included the Patriots girls near the top all season, but the boys have been around .500 and were on a three-game losing streak entering the 4A-8 showdown at Death Valley.
“We played a good game against (Gaither) in the Wharton Invitational, but lost,” said Patriots forward Evan Kruk. “We’re feeling good coming in because this was the game that mattered for districts. Obviously we bounced back from that in a positive way.”
The Cowboys outshot Freedom 7-2 in the first half, but Patriots goalkeeper Nathan Brown turned away all attempts including several crosses that seemed destined for the back of the net.
“(Brown) stepped in with the starting role last year and got six or seven starts under his belt, which is a big help for this season,” said Freedom coach Dennis Derflinger.
Brown finished with 10 saves, setting up Kruk in the 74th minute for the winning goal.
Midfielder Michael Sacco took a shot in front of Gaither’s net. It ricocheted around before setting in front of Kruk, which he buried home.
“It’s a feeling you can’t describe,” said Kruk. “It’s the reason you play. … My first thought was that I was offside, but I finished it anyway. Obviously I wasn’t offside.”
Brown made a big save less than 2 minutes after Kruk’s goal to preserve the win.
“I was thinking I’m not letting anything get in my net,” Brown said. “Nothing is scoring on me.”
Cowboys goalkeeper Carlos de Oliveira finished with five saves, including two in the final minutes to keep the game close. Derflinger said he saw the late-game pressure as a sign of his team playing more aggressively.
“We’re finally getting some of our injured players back, so that’s helping with our skill level,” Derflinger said. “We’re starting to play a little better as a team. It’s starting to come together and luckily we have a few more games to build on that.”
As for the girls, the Patriots managed four shots in the contest but made the most of the chances.
“We didn’t have many shots, but we were able to capitalize on our opportunities,” said Freedom coach Jenna Ball. “That’s important, and we did a good job of getting our whole team up and supporting together. I feel like we just played as a team.”
The opening tally came in the 33rd minute on the Patriots only shot of the first half. Midfielder Chloe Stokes stole the ball from a Cowboys defender and found the top left corner.
Daniello added an insurance tally in the 64th minute. She settled a pass from Leah Stiling and hit a rocket into the top left corner to seal the win.
“I was really happy,” Daniello said. “Watching it go past their keeper is just indescribable.”
The story was the opposite for Gaither, who managed seven shots and several crossing attempts that missed the mark.
“We’ve got to hit the target,” said Cowboys coach Trevor Scott. “If you don’t hit the target you can’t score. It’s as simple as that.”
Gaither was without starting keeper Amanda High, who has had a nagging hip injury that has limited her during the last month. Freshman Kelsey Ristad started in her place.
“Ristad did a good job,” Scott said. “We also just lost another player — Nicole Hoban — who’s a good freshman defender who broke her arm. So it’s been a little unlucky, but still we had a chance to win tonight.”
By clinching the No. 2 seeds both Patriots squads earn byes into the district semifinals, meaning they would earn a playoff berth with just one win in the tournament.
The 4A-8 girls tournament is at Freedom Jan. 17-20, with the championship on Friday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. The boys event is at Steinbrenner Jan. 23-27, with the finals on Friday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.