GREENWOOD — By the time you reach the regional rounds of the state boys soccer tournament, there aren’t usually any weak teams left. The margin for error becomes much smaller — and if you leave the opposing side a chance to bury you, you’re likely to see your season reach its ending sooner than you might have liked.
Such was the case for host Center Grove during Wednesday evening’s Class 3A regional semifinal against Columbus North. The Trojans got off to a slow start, and the fourth-ranked Bull Dogs made them pay dearly, claiming a 3-1 victory.
North (17-1-1) will face Floyd Central in the regional final at around 4:30 pm Saturday at Bloomington South.
“We weren’t ready when the whistle blew,” Center Grove coach Jameson McLaughlin said. “I’m not going to mince words. … We just weren’t ready. They wanted it more in the first 25 minutes, and they took it to us.”
Indeed, the Bull Dogs dictated the issue early, and their aggressiveness paid off in the 10th minute of play. Junior Christian Cardoso took the ball away from a Center Grove defender and found himself free for a point-blank shot in front of the net, which he converted easily for the first goal of the game.
Cardoso assisted on another North tally just over seven minutes later by feeding classmate Aidan Whitley, who bent a hard left-to-right shot — one that McLaughlin called “world class” — safely beyond the reach of Trojan goalkeeper Devin McCormick to make it 2 -0 in the 17th minute.
The Bull Dogs continued to get the better of play, but Center Grove started getting some decent scoring chances on counterattacks midway through the half. Each time the Trojans had a threat, however, North netminder Oscar Ballinas and his back line managed to turn it away.
Ballinas made a save on Ely Detty’s breakaway shot in the 20th minute. Just moments later, center backs Leo Iorio and Eduardo Ruiz Cordova tackled a charging Landen Montfort right at the 18-yard line to keep the home team off the board.
North, meanwhile, continued to cash in on its opportunities. A pass from Flynn Keele set the table for senior Nathan Imlay, who had his initial shot attempt blocked by McCormick but stayed with the play and put it home on the second effort, stretching the Bull Dog lead to three in the 32nd minute.
“We’ve been working really hard on finishing and accuracy and being a little more proactive in the attack to score goals, and we do that with heavy transition out of our front four from D to O, and that paid dividends tonight,” North coach Andy Glover said.
Center Grove got a much-needed jolt just before halftime. A hard shot from Detty in the final minute was turned away by Ballinas but led to a corner—and Montfort’s well-placed kick found the head of senior Caden York, who banged it inside the left post with just 12 seconds to spare.
Coming out of the break, the Trojans did take a bit more initiative and had the better of play, but they weren’t able to net another goal to increase the pressure on the Bull Dogs. Max Grewe, who came on in relief of Ballinas after halftime, made saves on free kicks by Detty and Matheus Gubert in the early minutes.
At the other end, North generated some high-caliber chances off of counters, but some spectacular close-range saves by McCormick kept Center grove within striking distance.
The strikes that the Trojans needed, though, just never materialized.
“We had our chances in the second half,” McLaughlin said. “We put one of those in… it’s 3-2, and I think the momentum kind of helps us. We just couldn’t get past it.
“We have enough offensive firepower, I always feel like we’re in it. Three goals? We’ve scored three plenty this year. It’s just — it’s an 80-minute game, not 60. We didn’t play the first 20-25 minutes. They outworked us, they had us confused and they mentally beat us.”
The Bull Dogs outshot Center Grove 12-11, with both teams putting eight shots on goal. Ballinas posted three saves, and Grewe finished with four saves.
“We’ve been chasing our highest level performance, and we’re getting closer each game that goes by,” Glover said of his squad. “I’m just delighted we get another chance to chase that best performance that we can put on the field, the most mature one.”
Though disappointed with the outcome, McLaughlin was impressed with what he saw from North regardless.
“Point blank, they’re good,” he said. “I’m going to be amazed if they don’t win it all.”