For a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode after losing 10 seniors to graduation last season, the Gaither boys soccer team sure didn’t make it seem that way, as it clawed its way to the Class 4A-District 8 title with a 3-2 victory against Freedom on Jan. 28.
The No. 2 seeded Cowboys staved off a late charge by No. 1 Freedom to escape with the win, something Gaither coach Eric Sims aimed for all year.
“I knew we had a lot coming back, we lost some impact players last year, but I knew we had a strong foundation,” Sims said. He then added, “I’ve had a lot of really good teams not win district championships. … I’m really proud of the job they did.”
The Cowboys (17-4-1) didn’t waste time getting to work in the first half, stopping the Patriots cold in their tracks early. Freedom senior defender Connor Limburg took a shot at the Gaither net 17 minutes in, but only found the crossbar. The Cowboys marched the ball back down field and into their zone as junior midfielder Tyler Helm sent a pass across to junior Justin Santos, who headed it in for the first goal of the night.
Less than a minute later, Gaither kept the offensive pressure on the Patriots as senior forward Jonas Bukh found the back of the net in the 18th minute for a 2-0 Cowboys advantage.
“It’s always good to come in front,” Bukh said of his first goal. “We always want to be in front and never want to be behind early.”
The Gaither defense wouldn’t hold Freedom back for long, as an inopportune handball in the 34th minute set up a penalty kick for Patriots senior forward Evan Kruk, which he would convert to cut the deficit to one going into the half.
Bukh says Sims preached sticking to the basics at halftime for his team to put away the Patriots.
“He was like ‘They’re going to come out and thunder at you, you guys got to hold them off and get another goal and put them away,” Bukh said.
The Cowboys carried its first half momentum over after the half and struck fast off a corner kick in the 46th minute, as Bukh nabbed the rebound off a Freedom defender and sent the ball sailing into the goal for a 3-1 lead.
“He’s just dangerous,” Sims said of Bukh. “Every time he touches the ball, he’s very dangerous and he’s turned into a finisher for us. It’s definitely good that he landed back with us.”
The Patriots tried to seize an opportunity to get a goal back midway through the second half on a corner kick, but were quickly turned away by Gaither junior goal keeper Kyle Smith, who made an incredible diving save on junior midfielder Patrick Watters to preserve the two goal lead.
Watters would be dealt a red card by the referee for inappropriate language soon after, starting a string of fouls that sent off two more players from both teams on yellow cards.
The Patriots would try to make a comeback attempt in the 76th minute as they cut the lead to just one with less than five minutes to play. Kruk took the free kick attempt for Freedom and sent the ball careening into a host of Patriot attackers when junior defender Jett Wright redirected the ball off of his leg to keep his team alive.
However the excitement was short lived, as Gaither kept the ball in the Freedom end, refusing to let the Patriots tie the game. In the 81st minute, the Patriots gave one final push for their third goal, but Kruk sent the ball wide off a corner kick.
Freedom coach Dennis Derflinger says it’s great to be back in the regional playoffs for the first time in three years, but not taking home the district crown stings a bit.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet,” Derflinger said. He then added, “We know we had a chance at this game tonight, but we just got to look forward to next week, come back and play like we did in the second half and I think we’ll be alright.”
Jeff Odom / Sports Editor