Oak Mountain survives test from Chelsea to return to Final Four

Published 1:48 am Saturday, May 4, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – Mere seconds before halftime, the Oak Mountain Eagles faced one of the biggest threats to their undefeated season yet as the Chelsea Hornets broke through to tie up the match at 1-1.

With a spot in the Final Four hanging in the balance, Oak Mountain needed a response to break through Chelsea’s stout back line and get the go-ahead goal.

After chance upon chance couldn’t find the back of the net, the Eagles broke the tie with 10 minutes left and didn’t look back as they secured the 3-1 victory on Friday, May 3 in front of a raucous crowd that filled the stands and lined the fences at Oak Mountain High School.

“Our boys did a great job,” Oak Mountain coach David DiPiazza said. “Chelsea is a great team. We knew it was going be a battle and it was an absolute battle. I’m really proud of how the guys came out here and played.”

With the teams entering the match as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final boys soccer coaches poll, the opening minutes played out like a heavyweight showdown as each side got quality possessions in the attacking half of the field.

In the fourth minute of the match, not long after Oak Mountain had a chance in the box, the Eagles won the ball in the defensive half and got a corner kick at the other end. Joiner scored off the corner, but Oak Mountain was called for a pushing foul that wiped it off the board.

Chelsea then got a chance to attack in the ninth minute after Kaleb Bass won the ball and the offense built up to a cross from Daniel Teixeira cross and a missed header.

From there, the Eagles had a pair of chances in short succession, including a Sam Collins shot that Hornets keeper Brock Marlow saved in the 11th minute and a dangerous ball in the box that Chelsea cleared away in the 13th minute.

Oak Mountain continued pressing the attack before the Hornets got a shot off in the 17th minute. The effort was saved by Eagles keeper Alexander Chaide-Cruz to preserve the shutout.

Chelsea then had a pair of solid defensive possessions to keep Oak Mountain off the attack as they neutralized a 20th-minute Gerardo Rodriguez run and got a tackle on the right win to spark a counterattack in the 23rd minute.

After Chaide-Cruz saved a deep, low shot in the 23rd minute, Elijah Huggins defended Sam Collins’ run and handled the attack well.

Collins went back on the attack in the 25th minute to spark two quick shots from the Eagles and a corner that led to another shot from Luke Jovonovich.

Oak Mountain continued to win corner kicks over the next few minutes until one finally sparked a goal.

In the 29th minute, Nate Joiner received the cross from a corner and headed the ball into the back of the net for the opening goal to put the Eagles up 1-0.

Chelsea responded on the other end with a Brandon Cruz shot mere seconds later as the Hornets brushed off the opener and took the fight to the top-ranked team in the nation.

After Grant Saether made an attacking cross in the 34th minute, Chelsea got a free kick shortly after to continue putting pressure on Oak Mountain.

While the Hornets missed the target in the 35th minute, they connected just a few minutes later to capitalize on their momentum.

Parker Dean made a run into the box in the 40th minute, and he made the short pass to Max Wever who chipped the ball into the top of the net with his left foot to score with just 26 seconds remaining.

That goal leveled the score at 1-1 going into halftime and sparked plenty of emotions in the Oak Mountain huddle.

“I was very upset at halftime. And it was an incident that the whole team was (upset),” DiPiazza said. “We were like, ‘Man, I can’t believe they pressured the ball. I can’t believe we gave up a goal with 26 seconds left.’ So that was that was a situation that could have turned a team in the wrong direction. And I was really proud of how, like I just said it there, I was probably the most visibly upset person about what happened, and how we kind of kept our composure and kind of battled through that situation and started playing again. I think that’ll give us what we need to do to keep going two more games.”

That fight and response came after an even start to the second half as Oak Mountain had to continue battling Chelsea’s lockdown on-ball defense.

The Hornets defended back-to-back possessions in the 46th minute before Marlow collected a wayward Aidan Riley two minutes later.

Harrison Kilgore tried to play a ball in to Rodriguez in the 51st minute, but his pass into the box led to a missed shot.

Chelsea then had another string of offense including a 52nd-minute free kick, 53rd-minute corner kick and a deep shot by Cruz in the 55th minute that went over the goal.

However, the Eagles then started to turn the tide in their favor and build towards more quality chances on offense.

Oak Mountain won a corner in the 57th minute but missed on both the cross and the deep chip pass that followed.

Two minutes later, controversy arose after Aidan Riley was tackled during a run on the right wing. The Eagles coaching staff argued for a second yellow card, but a common foul was awarded.

However, that foul nearly led to a score as the close-range free kick was sent to Om Shrestha who just barely missed a chance at a goal.

Oak Mountain continued to attack along the wings in the ensuing stretch as they pushed the attack after they kept the Hornets from breaking through on the other end.

In the 68th minute, the Eagles took some time building up an attack after a free kick, and the ball eventually bounced dangerously off Marlow’s gloves following a stop. No one from Oak Mountain could take advantage and the play eventually broke down.

Two minutes later in the 70th minute, the Eagles sent a corner Joiner’s way in hopes of replicating their first half goal, but the ball was headed over.

Oak Mountain’s star forward got a chance to make up for that mere moments later.

Collins made a run from the right wing towards the box, and he chipped the ball across to box to Joiner, who put a quick skill on the ball to lose the defender with his right before using his left to slot the shot home.

That goal ignited the Eagles faithful along the fence and gave Oak Mountain the 2-1 lead with 10 minutes left.

The Eagles never looked back from there as they settled into a more comfortable style with the lead.

Five minutes after Joiner earned his brace, Chelsea committed a handball in the box that sent Riley to the spot in the 75th minute.

Riley fired his kick into the top right corner of the goal to give Oak Mountain an insurance goal and seal the 3-1 win.

After the match, DiPiazza said that Joiner’s second goal helped take some of the pressure off his veterans who felt like they had to play up to Oak Mountain’s championship standard and allow them to just do what they do best.

“I think it just gave us a chance to relax and we started playing better soccer and keeping the ball and passing,” DiPiazza said. “To be honest, I think we played very direct tonight and it’s a big game, there’s a lot of stress on those guys and pressure. The core of this team played in the state championship game two years ago, so I think it was just like relief. The pressure is off a little bit more and we could settle down and play soccer.”

DiPiazza tipped his cap to Chelsea for forcing his team out of their normal rhythm and tactics. He said that he was forced to make tactical changes to the formation by going back to their strengths to turn the tide and break the tie.

“The biggest thing was we changed the way we’re playing,” DiPiazza said. “We started the game trying to match them. I’ll be honest, (Chelsea) played tremendous. #11 (Shon McKinney) out there did a great job tackling and winning balls. And it’s just a matter of we don’t normally play a 3-5-2. It’s a system we’re good at, but when it wasn’t working and we weren’t breaking them down well, we just changed the way we played, went back to 4-3-3 and I think we had more guys on the ball and more success in that.”

DiPiazza and Chelsea coach Lee Miller both remarked on the massive turnout from both schools for the matchup. DiPiazza was proud to see so many people supporting high school soccer with the best talent in the county and Alabama on the pitch while creating an electric atmosphere.

“I think it was an incredible atmosphere,” DiPiazza said. “You got two Shelby County teams, the two best teams in Shelby County, two best teams in the state probably playing tonight, I really firmly believe. Both coach Miller and I talked about it before the game, like how incredible, like we knew we’d have a great crowd. So, the atmosphere out here for a high school soccer game was unreal for both teams.”

With the win, the 27-0-1 Eagles will move on and face Huntsville in a rematch of last year’s Final Four loss to the Panthers on Thursday, May 8 at 3 p.m. at John Hunt Park in Huntsville.

While DiPiazza is proud of his team’s success to this point, he knows the job isn’t finished until they achieve their goals: a state championship, an undefeated season and potentially Oak Mountain’s third national championship in program history.

“This group, from the beginning of the year and the media day, we had a senior say, ‘My goal is to go undefeated and win a state championship,’ and man, this group of guys have committed to it,” DiPiazza said. “They’ve worked so hard to get us back to Huntsville, so we’re happy to be there, but we’re not done.”