COLUMBIA — In a meeting of high-powered offenses, defense stole the spotlight.
Wando's bid for a second consecutive Class AAAA boys state soccer championship fell short as J.L. Mann's impressive defensive efforts paved the way for a 2-1 victory Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Both teams scored no fewer than five goals in each of their four playoff games en route to the title match, but the defensive contest didn't come as a surprise to sixth-year Warriors coach Shilo Tisdale.
“With the pressure going into this game, I (thought) that both defenses can step up,” Tisdale said. “They're a deep team. We're a deep team. Both teams scored a lot of goals (this season), but both have great defenses as well.”
After a few tense moments early, Wando settled into a rhythm and controlled possession. The Warriors (27-4) outshot the Patriots (23-2-1) by a 12-2 margin in the first half and generated a number of quality scoring opportunities as a result, but Mann goalkeeper Devon Ashy was up to the challenge.
Despite Wando's efforts, it was the Patriots that struck first. In the 35th minute, Mann midfielder John Cajka, who will play for Clemson in the fall, slotted a free kick down the left flank to Nicky Watson. The junior forward one-timed the ball over Warriors goalkeeper Hunter Greer into the far panel for his team-high 25th goal of the season — and the first that Wando allowed in the playoffs.
The Patriots, who were defeated by Irmo in last season's Upper State championship game after claiming the Class AAA title in 2010, took the one-goal lead into halftime.
“When I went in (the locker room) after all the players were already there, the mood was good because they knew we had another half,” Tisdale said. “And they felt if they continued to play like that, we would get this win.
“If we could get that one goal, we thought for sure we would get the others,” he added. “But we fell short and missed a lot of opportunities that should have went in. And that will haunt us.”
The opportunities Tisdale spoke of were aplenty. James Appleby was close on a pair of volleys, and in what was the Warriors' best scoring opportunity of the half, Christian Jablonski did well to round Ashy but sent his shot just wide of the net.
The trend continued into the early part of the second half. In the 49th minute, Wando had three point-blank shots that were remarkably blocked off the goal line each time.
One minute later, however, Hamilton Carlin provided the Warriors with the equalizer when he took advantage of a loose ball in the box.
Greer prevented Mann from reclaiming the lead shortly thereafter with a diving save on a free kick, but with 13:27 remaining, Curtis Wallin converted his own rebound to give the Patriots a 2-1 lead that would not be relinquished.
Tisdale employed a 3-5-2 formation after Wallin's go-ahead strike in an effort to provide Carlin with some help up top. While Wando knocked long balls into the box in the game's final minutes, Mann's defenders thwarted the attempts.
“(The Patriots are) an intense team,” Tisdale said. “They played with a lot of heart, and give them credit for that.”
The Warriors concluded their season with a 27-4 mark, and Tisdale is cautiously optimistic about next season after utilizing a starting lineup that featured just three seniors — South Carolina-bound Trent Rieflin, Appleby and Greer.