Pitch perfect: Oak Mountain finishes undefeated season with first state title since 2017

Published 3:49 pm Saturday, May 11, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HUNTSVILLE – After the full-time whistle blew and the Oak Mountain Eagles mobbed their teammates to celebrate winning the state championship, players and coaches embraced one another in tearful hugs.

The 3-0 victory over the Auburn High School Tigers in the 2024 Class 7A boys soccer state championship game on Saturday, May 11 at John Hunt Park represented more than just another title.

To the Eagles, it was a breakthrough moment after two years of heartbreak and seven years of waiting, a crowning achievement to an undefeated 29-0-1 season with a No. 2 ranking in the nation by MaxPreps entering the match and perhaps most importantly, the last moment they will spend together on the pitch.

“I’m emotional not because we won another championship,” DiPiazza said. “I am incredibly sad that I am at the end of this time with this group of kids. I’m not going to lie. I’ve been doing a lot of crying and it has nothing to do with winning a championship or even being in a championship. It’s just this group is so special and such incredible kids. Our parents are incredible, our fans, our community. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. And honestly, I’m sad. I’m sad that it’s over.”

Oak Mountain started the game on the front foot, as has been their style, but they were met with a stingy Auburn defense throughout the half.

The Eagles sent a ball up to Aidan Riley in the fifth minute, but the Tigers keeper challenged it. Later, in the 12th minute, Oak Mountain tried the cross again, this time to Nate Joiner, but his header missed the frame.

Oak Mountain continued to dominate possession in the attacking half of the field, but Auburn broke through for a big chance in the 19th minute. The Tigers went on a breakaway towards the box, but the Auburn attacker tripped over his own feet to allow Alexander Chaide-Cruz to collect the ball.

Another free kick cross from Oak Mountain in the 22nd minute went to Luke Jovanovich along the left post with the keeper there to cover it.

The Eagles were unable to break through on set pieces as they were either defended well or went the other way due to an Oak Mountain foul during the play.

Then, in the 29th minute, the Eagles had one of their most dangerous opportunities of the half with a ball sent to the top of the box, but it was cleared out of the danger area by Auburn for a corner kick.

The Tigers continued getting back quickly to contest balls and keep Oak Mountain off the score sheet all the way until the half as the teams went into the halftime huddles tied 0-0.

The Eagles kept knocking at the door at the start of the second half with two blocked shots in the 42nd minute and a Riley cross in the box in the 50th minute that was blocked.

But then, the dam finally burst thanks to the breakthrough goal.

After Oak Mountain won a corner kick in the 51st minute, the ball bounced off a pair of heads and towards the top of the box. There, Gabe Capocci settled the ball with his right foot before turning and bending a shot with the same foot just over the goal line.

With that goal, the Eagles took a 1-0 lead, and the emotional release helped propel them to even more success the rest of the way.

Two minutes later, Jovanovich sent a shot over the goal as Oak Mountain kept up the pressure over the next few minutes.

Just before the hydration break in the 60th minute, Auburn sent a dangerous ball in off a free kick, but after the ball bounced around, Coan Park’s shot went left of the goal.

That was one of two shots on the day for the Tigers, neither on goal as Chaide-Cruz and the defense secured the clean sheet.

Shortly after a breakaway run was cleared in the 62nd minute, Joiner made another run up the left wing and sent a pass towards the front of the goal. The ball just got past the keeper and landed near the right post for Riley, and he rifled the shot into the top shelf to double up the lead.

While both teams continued to battle, the Eagles struck once more to put a stamp on perfection.

In the 71st minute, Luke Jovanovich settled the pass he received and weighted a perfect forward ball to the front of the goal. Gerardo Rodriguez won the race to the goal and leaped for the header to score, giving his team an insurance goal with a 3-0 lead.

That sealed the deal for Oak Mountain as it saw out the 3-0 win and won its first state championship since 2017.

After the game, DiPiazza said his team’s plan of attack was no different from the rest of the season. He knew if they got consistent chances and kept possession, a breakthrough goal would come eventually like it did in the semifinal against Huntsville.

“We just try to keep the ball, play good soccer, make them chase us, wear them down, possess the ball and we knew we’ll get chances. It’s a matter of time,” DiPiazza said. “Honestly, it’s nothing different than we’ve done all year and we haven’t changed the way we played. We just do the same thing and it just works.”

To find success with those tactics once again, DiPiazza said it meant channeling the bonds forged throughout the season to overcome adversity.

DiPiazza looked back at the months of bonding that the team had, from dinner on Jekyll Island with the girls team to bus rides together to a team trip to Topgolf the night before the title game, and said those moments turned them into something closer than a team: “a family,” and one that made the difference in winning or losing a championship.

“It’s that bond and that brotherhood that will bend like we did in the Chelsea game, will bend like we did against Oconee, but we’re not going to break,” DiPiazza said.

That bond took years of work and struggling through heartbreaking losses to Daphne in the 2022 state championship game and to Huntsville in the 2023 Final Four to achieve their goal of a championship.

DiPiazza credited those 2022 and 2023 teams for helping lay the groundwork for this year’s team to use those failures as motivation to propel them towards fulfilling a dream which was years in the making.

“This core group of players, it’s almost been a project,” DiPiazza said. “It’s not just about this group, it’s about the guys we had last year and the guys we had the year before. We haven’t really graduated a lot of kids in the last three years, and it’s been a culmination of hard work over the past three years, and to get back to the championship game is so important after getting here two years ago, it’s honestly a relief. I know the guys are tired. I think we’re all kind of exhausted and just incredibly happy and proud.”

That joy was evident after the game as the team embraced one another and celebrated together.

While fielding questions following the championship win, the players ran up to DiPiazza and gave him a Gatorade bath before mobbing their leader in celebration.

It was just one more moment that brought the team together and another memory that will live on in everyone’s minds for years to come.

“Ranking teams is definitely hard to do,” DiPiazza said. “But it’s my first time I’ve ever coached a team that’s undefeated, just the guys, it’s got to be up there at the top. They’re such a tremendous group of people and I’ll never forget them.”