Jacksonville wasn’t at its best, but the Cardinals were still good enough to go three-for-three against Coastal 3A Conference foe Havelock and advance to the second round of the soccer playoffs.
Junior CJay Sparks, who had an IV earlier in the day as he battled a stomach virus that also afflicted some of his teammates, had one goal and an assist to help the fourth-seeded Cardinals beat the 29th-seeded Rams 3-1 Tuesday night.
Seniors Alex Pino and Warren Washington had Jacksonville’s other goals as the defending state champions advanced to the second round
“We weren’t playing pretty good,” said Pino, who gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead with 14:15 left in the opening half. “We weren’t on our game. We need to control the ball more. We just need to keep our heads in the game.”
Part of the problem, no doubt, was a number of players – including Sparks, Washington and Ryan Johnson – were suffering from a stomach virus. The other problem was this was the third meeting between the two teams. Jacksonville won the other two 6-2 and 5-1.
“Playing a team for the third team, a little overconfident. Not really taking it serious like we should,” Jacksonville coach Dave Miller said.. “Then, of course, the few illnesses, and it was just sloppy. There wasn’t a whole lot of intensity or sense of urgency.
“So I don’t think mentally we were where we needed to be for a playoff game. It didn’t seem like we were really getting any kind of rhythm tonight. But like I told the boys, ‘It’s survive and move on, find a way to get it done and play another game.’”
And that the Cardinals, many of whom were sporting their annual red Mohawks for the playoffs, did against the Rams, who had 12 seniors who were desperate to do likewise.
“They didn’t want it to be their last game so they came out with everything they had,” Havelock coach Jeremiah Johnson said. “Being the fact that it’s a conference team, it’s harder. But they definitely played their hearts out.”
In fact, the Rams matched and at times outplayed Jacksonville in the first 20 minutes, but at about the midway point of the opening half the Cardinals started applying the pressure and broke through to go up 1-0.
Tyler Moore’s hard shot was stopped by goalkeeper Kevin Garay, who wasn’t able to corral the ball and Pino pounced, smacking into an open net to give the Cardinals a lead they never lost.
“I just wanted to shoot it in the back of the net,” Pino said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”
The Cardinals made it 2-0 on a nice play by Washington. After a scrum about 30 yards out, Sparks managed to get the ball to Washington, who dribbled inside the box to the right side of the net and fired to the far corner with 9:05 left in the half.
JHS nearly made it 3-0, but Dylan Elliott missed a wide-open net in the final minute after Garay had gone down to block a shot.
The Rams wasted little time cutting the lead in half early in the second half. Junior Noah Kemble lofted a free kick from the left from about 25 yards into the far corner to pull Havelock within 2-1 with 32:51 left.
The Cardinals had a couple near misses, including one in which Havelock defender Jason Hollister made a nice sliding tackle on Washington.
Jacksonville scored the clinching goal when Moore dribbled deep and then sent a perfect cross to Sparks, who had an open net and didn’t miss to make it 3-1 with exactly two minutes left in the match.
Johnson credited a change in the way his team plays – more aggressive, for one thing, on both ends of the field – to the closer match the third time around.
“The first two games we weren’t really playing the style I like to play,” he said. “Then all of sudden as time progressed they finally started playing that style, and I think that we’re in the playoffs and they definitely didn’t want it to end. They definitely doubled how hard they worked.”
While it may have been a little closer than expected, the Cardinals never seemed in danger of losing. And while Miller would have liked to have seen more intensity and better play from his players, he also credited the Rams.
“They did a good job of getting back and taking lanes away from us,” he said. “We didn’t do a great job of doing what we need to do, changing the point of attack and creating those opportunities. We just had a hard time really getting in and creating quality opportunities. Luckily, we bent a little but didn’t break.”
Havelock 0 1 — 1
Jacksonville 2 1 — 3
GOALS—H: Kemble. J: Pino, Washington, Sparks. ASSISTS—H: none. J: Sparks, Moore. IN GOAL—H: Garay (7 saves). J: Davis (2 saves). SHOTS ON GOAL—H 3, J 10. CORNER KICKS—H 1, J 9. RECORDS—H: 8-10-2. J: 16-4-1.
Rick Scoope is the sports editor of the Jacksonville Daily News.