Patriot Boys Claim Tournament Title
Highlighted by a Hayden Little hat trick, Pinecrest captured the SEC tournament title Thursday with a 5-0 victory over Hoke County at the John Williams Athletic Complex.
The Patriots took control of the contest early in the first half, as the outcome of the championship match was never in doubt.
After firing their first five shots on target with nothing to show for it, Little put Pinecrest on the board with a goal on a penalty kick in the 18th minute. The foul leading to the kick came after Rene Cruz sent an accurate through ball from distance that split the Bucks’ back line before finding Little’s feet.
A Hoke defender then committed a blatant foul by tackling Little to the ground after he was behind the defense — facing nothing but daylight between himself and the keeper.
Less than two minutes later, Little struck again.
This time the junior forward found the back of the net after receiving a spot-on cross from Dane Nelsen. The pass found Little on the right side of the box where he shed a defender and buried the ball in the left portion of the net, giving the Pats a 2-0 lead with 20:38 remaining in the first half.
After the match, Little said it felt great for Pinecrest to “finish out the season strong.”
“This is my first hat trick,” he said. “I have been stuck at two (goals in a game) quite a few times and it feels good to finally put them away. On all the chances I had tonight, I put them away except for a couple.
“On my second goal, I saw Dane was going down the wing and could tell he was going to put it (the ball) back over. So with only one defender deep, I tried to settle it, get the goalie out of position and was able to put it in the front post.”
Pinecrest extended its advantage to a comfortable 3-0 margin in the 32nd minute, when Justin Mace finished off a masterful one-two ball initiated from Max Clare near midfield. Clare’s send found a streaking Taylor Morton, who in turn led Mace with a deft through-ball to set up the goal.
Throughout the first half, the Patriots applied constant and productive pressure on Hoke’s goal. Pinecrest’s offense found consistent success via sends from the outside back, through to the middle, constantly giving the Buck’s forward-pressing back line fits.
At halftime, Pinecrest owned a discernible advantage in time of possession and had placed eight of its 11 shots on goal in the frame. In contrast, Hoke primarily attacked on transition runs. As a result, the Bucks had just two legitimate scoring chances in the half on five shots, none of which seriously challenged Pinecrest senior keeper Mitchell Dotson.
At the onset of the second half, it took Pinecrest a while to settle down into rhythm, as it played out of their third set of the night.
The Patriots eventually regained their stride by controlling possession with precise passing, efficient communication and sound organization.
When not dictating the pace of the action while on offense, the Patriots won a vast majority of 50-50 balls and stole countless balls from the Bucks by fully committing on front and side tackles.
Just around the midpoint of the second half, Little collected his hat trick.
His third score came from inside the top left corner of the penalty area, where he finished off a slide pass from Shane Bridgman by depositing a half-volley into the net with 20:48 left to play in the tilt.
The Patriots capped off the night by scoring their fifth goal on a set piece in the 68th minute.
Head coach Todd Abbey instructed Richard Palmer to slide a free kick, from the 13-yard line, between Hoke’s wall and into space in the box. The all-state senior midfielder pulled off the pass as he found an open Mace streaking unmarked towards the goal. Although Mace did not score with his shot, it did bounce off the keeper, allowing Drew Phillips to punch in the ball for an unobstructed rebound.
For sophomore Rene Cruz, the match marked the end of his first regular season at the varsity level for Pinecrest and the result gave him first taste of a league tournament title. The next time he takes the pitch, it will be for his first ever playoff action.
“This season has been a really good experience,” said Cruz. “For my first year playing varsity, I could not ask for a better situation (than this) with the knowledge, skills and wisdom these guys have.
“It has been an honor to be a part of this team and I am excited to go out and give my all in the postseason, where we will face better opponents and tougher challenges.”
With the victory, Pinecrest improved to 18-2-2 on the season and added the SEC tournament crown to its undefeated regular-season championship campaign.
The Patriots begin their 4-A playoff run by hosting a first-round match, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m., against the fourth seed from the Mid-South Conference.
Contact F.W. Manning II at firstname.lastname@example.org
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