‘We’re not done’: Oak Mountain gets revenge on Huntsville to reach state championship game

Published 11:34 pm Thursday, May 9, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HUNTSVILLE – After the Oak Mountain Eagles’ 3-1 win over the Huntsville Panthers on Thursday, May 9, one phrase echoed through the team huddle: “We’re not done.”

Even though the Eagles did what they couldn’t do a year ago and took down Huntsville at John Hunt Park just down the street from its campus, even though their Class 7A Final Four victory achieved one of their goals of reaching the state title game, even though they stand just a win away from an undefeated season, they knew the job wasn’t finished.

“Feels great, really proud of the guys,” Oak Mountain coach David DiPiazza said. “Obviously, this is the team that put us out last year. They played a tremendous game. We played a tremendous game. We’re one step away from accomplishing a goal that we’ve been working towards for three years and we know we’re not finished and we’re excited about the opportunity to play in the championship game again.” 

From the opening whistle, Oak Mountain took the fight to Huntsville as it continued its direct style that has brought so much success this season.

The Eagles went on a pair of runs in the opening five minutes, the last of which ended in a deep shot that went over the goal.

Aidan Riley and Nate Joiner helped power the early attack, including a seventh minute cross from Riley that Joiner headed towards the Panthers keeper to force a save.

Two minutes later, Huntsville’s keeper caught an Eagles cross, and then in the 13th minute, Oak Mountain tested the Panthers again with a Riley shot that forced a save.

After a steady string of chances, the Eagles finally broke through midway through the first half.

With Riley making a run in the 19th minute, once he got into the box, he slipped a pass to Nate Joiner who fired the shot into the bottom corner for the opening goal to take the 1-0 lead.

The Eagles took an even firmer grip on the match with the lead now in hand. Gabe Capocci took a shot off the bounce in the 25th minute that missed, and a few moments later, a slow curler atop the box was saved.

Riley was part of two more chances before the end of the half as a deep forward pass to him near the box in the 35th minute didn’t lead to a shot and his shot at goal in the 39th minute led to a follow-up effort from Sam Collins that was no good.

Huntsville briefly scared Oak Mountain with less than a minute left in the half thanks to a shot that missed across goal. However, the Eagles took the 1-0 lead into the halftime huddle.

The pressure continued in the second half when Riley made a driving run to win a corner in the 43rd minute.

After connecting for the opener, Riley and Joiner reversed their roles in the 45th minute. Joiner crossed the ball up to Riley who headed the ball up for an arching shot that went over the Panthers keeper for the second goal of the match.

Now up 2-0, Oak Mountain continued creating chances in search of another goal to put away the match. Om Shrestha made a run up the middle that led to a shot in the 48th minute, the Eagles sent a shot over the goal in the 56th minute and Collins ripped a shot to the right of goal in the 58th minute.

Two minutes after that, Huntsville got another chance off a shot that went out for a corner. The Panthers went for the midair challenge on the cross in but lost for a goal kick.

Oak Mountain nearly got a chance to secure the third goal in the 68th minute when a Huntsville player ran into Sam Collins in the box. The Eagles shouted for a penalty, but they didn’t get the call.

However, they quickly got another chance on goal two minutes later, and Luke Jovanovich’s driving run led to a low shot that went into the net.

That 70th minute goal put the exclamation mark on the victory and sealed the 3-0 win.

After the match, DiPiazza thanked the traveling fans who helped impact the game for Oak Mountain. He also believed that their possession-based attack paid dividends and led to their breakthroughs in front of goal.

“Just for us, it’s just keeping control of the ball and playing calm,” DiPiazza said. “And that was one of the big things we stressed in a moment like this like. We normally go big on kickoffs. We’re like, ‘Let’s keep the ball, pass the ball, make them chase us, wear them down. We know we’ll create chances and we’re just confident that we’ll create chances and we’ll score when we do so.’

DiPiazza also believes that controlling the ball so much on offense helped goalkeeper Alexander Chaide-Cruz and the defense preserve the clean sheet. He said that his team is talented enough around the pitch to succeed in every phase of the game and help each part of the squad out.

“I think the biggest part of defending is attacking and for me, being a former goalkeeper, that might seem a little strange, but if we could stay on the front foot, we defend less, and I think we’re averaging like allowing 2.1 shots on goal the entire season,” DiPiazza said. “That’s just something we’ve done and I think a big part of that is just we have the ball so much.”

With the win, Oak Mountain will advance to the state championship game against Auburn on Saturday, May 11 at 11:30 a.m. at Huntsville’s John Hunt Park.

For the Eagles, it’s a chance to realize a dream seven years in the making and return to the mountaintop of Class 7A for the first time since 2017. Beyond that, a win would seal an undefeated season as Oak Mountain now sits at 28-0-1 and would give it a shot at being named national champions.

However, just like his team said in the huddle, DiPiazza knows his team isn’t done yet and isn’t about to change what brought them to this point.

“We’re like peanut butter and jelly,” DiPiazza said. “Our lineup doesn’t change. Our tactics doesn’t really change. The one time we did last week, it didn’t really go well for us. So, we just do the things we do, and I feel confident that we could win a state championship.”