Pelham eliminates Briarwood in thriller

Published 11:40 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A group of Pelham players celebrate after knocking off Briarwood on the road in the second round of the 6A playoffs on May 3. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

A group of Pelham players celebrate after knocking off Briarwood on the road in the second round of the 6A playoffs on May 3. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – When Pelham and Briarwood met for the first time this season on the pitch, the Panthers got the best of the Lions by a final score of 3-2. The second time the two teams met, on April 19, Briarwood beat Pelham by a 2-1 final to clinch the 6A Area 10 regular season title and home field advantage in the playoffs as well. The two times Pelham and Briarwood met in the regular season the margin of difference was razor-thin, as the two teams, though they play different styles of soccer, made for entertaining, hard-nosed soccer. After Briarwood held off John Carroll in the first round of the 6A playoffs and Pelham upset Homewood on the road, the two teams collided once more on May 3 with the season on the line.

After 65 minutes of scoreless soccer, Pelham senior Gio Adan crossed a ball from the far side of the field across the face of Briarwood’s goal, finding the foot of freshman Oliver Espinoza. Espinoza took a single touch before calmly hammering a shot into the back of the Briarwood net, which gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead. Espinoza’s goal was the only goal scored for either team all night, as Pelham got the best of Briarwood on the road to keep its season alive, sending the Lions home in the process.

“We win by a goal, they win by a goal, we win by a goal, it’s just back and forth,” Pelham head coach Patrick McDonald said after the game. “This game compared to the two in the past, it’s razor-thin, the difference. It’s competitive; I can’t sum it up to just one thing. But hats off to Briarwood, they played outstanding.”

The Panthers had to change their game plan on the fly in the early going, as their premier forward, Jose Jimenez, went down with an injury in the fourth minute of the game and did not return for the rest of the night. Jimenez has phenomenal control and vision in the attack, and his absence did not go unnoticed. However, Pelham still had a number of good looks in the first half, none better than in the 27th minute when Espinoza had a salivating chance from just outside the Briarwood six-yard box, but shanked the shot to the left. Josh Brower had a free kick opportunity in the 36th minute that turned into a pair of corners, but nothing came from either one as the two teams went into the half all square at 0-0.

The second half however was almost all Pelham. Roughly 70 percent of the possession in the first 20 minutes of the second was played in the Pelham attacking third. However, while Briarwood had trouble possessing the ball in the middle of the field and turning in any competent looks at goal, the Lions defense did not break for quite a while.

No defense however can withstand constant pressure forever, and in the 65th minute Espinoza made up for his missed opportunity in the first half, rocketing a shot into the back of the net off a wonderful cross from Adan.

“He had a really good look the first half, so we talked to him at halftime and said, ‘We got some guys banged up right now, it’s your time,’” McDonald said of Espinoza. “He’s come up really big for us in games already this year, and I knew with the first half miss he was going to have another opportunity.”

The Briarwood offensive attack in the second half for the most part consisted of Brower playing deep, booming, accurate balls from midfield or beyond into the Pelham six-yard box where time and again a number of Lions were waiting to pounce. However, each time Brower hit a dangerous ball, Pelham keeper Seth Torman rose above everyone to snag the ball out of the air and prevent Briarwood from scoring in the melee.

In the last five minutes, Briarwood turned into Hail Mary mode, and had a few looks with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, but the Panthers defense did not break, and escaped with the 1-0 win.

“After you play a team three times, and you get this deep, it’s a game of inches, the margin for error is so small,” Briarwood head coach Shawn Brower said after the game. “They had a little bit of a step on us. I’m too proud of the job the boys have done to narrow this to one thing or another. To go from the program struggling to this group rallying together, coming together, winning 16 games, making it to the second round of the state tournament; they just exceeded all of our expectations.”

Briarwood ended the season with a 16-4-3 record and was the 6A Area 10 regular season champion. After starting the season 1-2-1, Briarwood finished the year 15-2-2, at one point winning eight games in a row.

Pelham moved to 15-9-2 with the win and will now advance to the third round of the 6A playoffs, where they will host Southside-Gadsden on May 7 at 7 p.m. for a chance to return to the 6A Final Four for the second year in a row.