Despite a strong start from the Tribe, the Raiders were able to battle back from being down early to capture an important 3-1 victory.
“We go down 1-0 at half in an elimination game. It came down to a matter of who wanted it more and our guys came out and played our hearts out in the second half. We persevered and get to move on,” stated Cleveland head coach John Brose.
McMinn didn’t make things easy for Cleveland as it came out fast and furious, controlling much of the offensive possession in the first half of play.
Pierson Bunch, the Raiders’ starting goalkeeper, had his work cut out for him early as he made saves in the sixth and seventh minutes of play to end a pair of Cherokee threats.
Offensively, Cleveland just couldn’t get things kick started, putting shots on goal that lacked pace and were easily cleared or scooped up by McMinn’s keeper.
Play came to a head in the 29th minute when the Raiders committed a foul in the box and the Cherokees were awarded a penalty kick that they did not hesitate to put in the back of Cleveland’s net, putting the visitors up early and bringing a roar of approval from their fans.
There was a scary moment in the 33rd minute when players packed the goal area in preparation for a Raider corner kick. In the resulting tumult of play the Cherokee keeper and another McMinn player collided together, banging heads together. Both had to be helped off the field.
Bunch made another impressive save in stoppage time to keep the Cherokees from extending the lead.
The early damage had been done though, and the Raiders found themselves behind the 8-ball and facing elimination if they didn’t rally in the second half.
Cleveland came out of the break with purpose, and looked to prove that they were prepared to leave it all out on the pitch when play resumed.
In the 44th minute of play the Raiders had one of their best looking offensive pushes of the game, but an offsides call ended the run early and kept the play from reaching fruition.
Jesse Jones was inches from bringing the score level in the 51st minute when he put a solid shot on goal that was only narrowly defended by McMinn’s keeper with a diving save.
He got his retribution three minutes later when Seth Goza laid him a perfect pass through the defense that Jones floated over an advancing keeper to bring the score even at 1-1.
CJ Garrett got the second half start in goal for Cleveland and he showed what he was made of in the 56th and the 62nd minute with a pair of spectacular saves to keep the score knotted up.
Rob Cooke launched a lengthy header to Goza during the 64th minute that Goza in turn headed over the Cherokee keeper and into the back of McMinn’s net to put Cleveland up 2-1 and steal every ounce of momentum on the field.
An oddity occurred in the 69th minute when Jones took a corner kick. Without an iota of spin or bend on the ball, Jones kicked it directly from the corner into the goal to put the Raiders up 3-1.
It was Cleveland’s turn for a scary moment late in the match when Alex Rodriguez was clipped by a McMinn defender and went down hard, clutching his ankle. He had to be helped off the field, and Brose said he is unsure of his status for the championship game.
Garrett ended the match with another pair of saves to preserve the Cleveland lead and allow the Raiders a shot at the second-state-ranked Ooltewah Owls in the district championship.
“Ooltewah is a great soccer team. At the same time, we were up on them a couple of times in the first match this season. We realized that they are a team we can play with. They didn’t just run over us. But, it will be a game in which we have to minimize our mistakes. We really have nothing to lose,” explained Brose.
In their previous meeting this season the Owls rallied after going down to take the match 4-2.
The Raiders will make the journey to Ooltewah Thursday for the 7 p.m. start time.