Pelham headed to 2nd Final Four in three years

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

PELHAM – For the second time in three years, the Pelham Panthers’ boys soccer team will have a chance to claim the Class 6A State Championship after advancing to the Final Four with a 7-2 victory over Benjamin Russell on Friday, May 3.

The Panthers have put together a magical postseason run with wins against Northridge, Chelsea and now Benjamin Russell. The win against Chelsea being a redemption win against a team that had beaten them twice in the regular season, and the win against Benjamin Russell being one that showed they wouldn’t have a letdown after such a big victory to illustrate their bigger goal of a championship.

Pelham didn’t just win the game, but put together one of its best performances of the season, showing this veteran squad is getting better as the moment gets bigger.

The first 25 minutes of the first half made it look like the game was going to be a tight battle, however. Nine minutes in, the Panthers grabbed the lead when Dani Benavides took a nice ground pass from Irvin Rodriguez and slid the ball into the back of the net for a 1-0 advantage.

But following that goal, both defenses tied up for the next 15 minutes of play.

With 14:48 to play in the half, however, Benjamin Russell was able to find an offensive player on the move. He slid right past the Pelham defensive line and drove to the goal for the equalizer.

But it didn’t take long for Pelham to answer. After coming off the field a few minutes earlier due to a yellow card, Irvin Rodriguez responded in a big way when he got back out there.

He was able to find some space with 6:10 remaining in the half and chipped the ball right over the keeper to put the Panthers back in front 2-1.

Pelham never trailed in the game, and from that point forward, the Panthers never even found themselves in a tie game again.

While the halftime score remained 2-1, Pelham came out in the second half ready to attack and pull away. The Panthers got several great looks in the first 17 minutes, and it seemed like a matter of time before another goal was added.

It came just three minutes later when Rodriguez picked up his second goal off a beautiful cross pass from Greg Blue and buried it in the back of the net for a 3-1 advantage with 20:33 to play.

For whatever reason, that goal seemed to loosen up the Panthers. A team that struggled to capitalize on chances throughout the season, all of a sudden couldn’t miss.

Less than 30 seconds after Rodriguez’s second goal of the night, Eber Serrano, the hero from the overtime win against Chelsea and the team captain, struck a solid shot from deep and sent it to the perfect spot out of reach of the keeper to put Pelham on top 4-1.

Benjamin Russell ended up striking next with 9:12 remaining in the game to cut the deficit to two goals, but then the flood gates opened.

In the final seven minutes of the game, the Panthers scored three more goals thanks to two from Kevyn Tejada and one from Jaylen Cook in the final minute to seal the 7-2 effort and propel into the Final Four.

Next up for Pelham will be two-time defending 4A-5A State Champion St. Paul’s. The last two years, St. Paul’s has beaten Briarwood to claim the championship, but Pelham is hoping to get redemption for the county and advance to its second championship game in three years.

With the veteran players on this team, it’s very possible, but the Panthers will have to continue playing as well as they have in the postseason, and more importantly, they’ll have to capitalize on opportunities.