War Eagles soccer advances to Final Four

Josh Garofalo stretches out for a high kick to keep the ball in Putnam’s hands against Spencer High School. 

PHOTO: Brandon Bush

By Brandon Bush

brandon@msgr.com

 

After three thrilling rounds, the Putnam County soccer team is two wins away from a state title.

After winning the intense first-round game against Gordon Central, the War Eagles advanced to the Final Four round of the GHSA Region 8-AA state playoffs for the third time in school history after two dramatic victories last week, first defeating Spencer High School on Tuesday, May 2, before outlasting Harlem High School last Saturday, both games ending in a 4-2 score.

For the now 17-1-1 Eagles, the playoffs have been a taxing few weeks. The overtime and penalty kick periods of the game with Gordon Central were already a close enough call, but Putnam greyed the hairs of its fans even more in the second and third rounds as it trailed early in both games, 1-0. However, a more positive similarity between the two games was that, after trailing early, the War Eagles stormed back into each game with a three-goal tear.

“We have a bunch of young kids and we continue to come out nervously,” Putnam soccer coach Mark Silva said. “We make small mistakes that get in our heads and it takes a while to get settled down. This is not how we want to play but it's almost like we have to give up a goal to get our heads straight.”

Putnam County’s success at the second and third rounds punched its ticket to be among the four soccer teams still standing in Class AA, joining its next opponent – Model High School – along with Thomasville and Benedictine, which played each other for one of the two championships game spots. The semi-final round, played this past Tuesday in Rome, served as the final hurdle for this Putnam County soccer team to jump on its way to competing for a state title if it succeeded against the Blue Devils.

The heavily physical Green Waves of Spencer High School came alive almost immediately in last Tuesday’s game, drawing a slew of fouls and putting pressure on Putnam throughout the first half. At 23:58, the Green Waves went up by a goal for a first-half lead.

Putnam did not take the deficit lying down, however, as it began to rally back into the game. Diego Sanchez challenged and outmaneuvered the Spencer goalkeeper to tie the game before Bryan Arreola added the second Putnam goal. Two more goals from Sanchez sealed the second-round victory for the War Eagles.

The first half of the third round was almost identical to the opening 40 minutes in the match with Spencer. Harlem put heavy pressure on Putnam, which culminated in the Bulldogs taking an early, 1-0 lead. Putnam turned that result around in almost no time when Arreola broke the stalemate with around 14:32 left in the first half.

“It was crazy,” Arreola said about his game-tying goal. “I don’t know, it just felt unbelievable to score [a goal] this far in the state playoffs.”

Arreola also recognized that, despite the victory, the War Eagles still have work to do to finish the drill.

“I think we performed well,” Arreola said. “We can work on some things. We need to play how we played [on Friday] but better. Overall, I’m proud of the team and I believe.”

Questionable officiating in the eyes of Putnam fans and vocal Harlem spectators caused some discord with the War Eagle faithful as the Bulldogs seemed to continue to get away with calls. Nonetheless, it only took a mere seven minutes for Putnam to reach the all too familiar position of leading 3-1 after trailing, both goals coming from Brenton Nelson, who came off the bench after dealing with a recent sickness.

“It feels good,” Nelson said about his role in getting the Eagles to the final stretch. “This is the first time I’ve had feelings like this. I feel good for my teammates and our fans. Now, we have to keep working hard to finish the season.”

Though Harlem sank another goal before the end of the half, Putnam was in control for the rest of the game when Sanchez made up for an earlier goal that was called offside and gave the War Eagles their fourth and final goal of the night.

In the past year, Putnam County has gotten very familiar with Model High School on the state playoff level: Despite a good season, the Lady War Eagle soccer team was eliminated from the first round of playoffs by the Lady Blue Devils a couple of weeks ago. The Lady Eagle basketball team was also denied by Model in the first round of state.

Model’s boys soccer team may be the strongest opponent the War Eagles have faced all season, entering the semi-final round with a 17-2 record (12-2 region). The Blue Devils blew out Social Circle – a region foe of Putnam’s – by a 7-1 score before defeating Callaway High School and Jeff Davis High School, both by a score of 4-0.

In addition to facing its most daunting opponent to date, Putnam was down an important player; due to the erratic calls throughout the game, Rusty Nichols was given two yellow cards, which equate to one red card and disqualified him from competing against Model.

Despite the rough road to the Final Four and the absence of Nichols, Putnam County still had the tools needed for victory. Regardless of their record, Silva himself doesn’t believe the War Eagles have truly reached their potential.

“It’s crazy; we’re 17-1-1 and I don’t think we’ve played our best soccer yet. I think we can play better, which I think is pretty exciting,” Silva said. “We just have to get over the nervousness and play a little better.”

If Putnam won on the road against Model on Tuesday, then it will be on its way to the state championship game set for May 12. For current updates on Putnam County soccer, follow the Lake County Sports Facebook page.

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