Between the two aggressive soccer teams fighting for the Class 4A Upper State championship Tuesday night, J.L. Mann’s first-half goal on a direct free kick proved to be the difference against host Blythewood.
Michele Bottari scored at the 9:45 mark of the first half. Drake Byrd added a goal before intermission for the Patriots in a 2-0 shutout over the Bengals to return to the 4A state championship game.
“They’re a good squad,” Bengals coach Peter Wittig said of the Patriots. “I told the guys that if we would’ve lost to a team that didn’t play better than we did, then I’d be really upset. But they were really good. Having fallen to them, I’d really like to see them win this time.”
J.L. Mann (21-2), three days removed from knocking off Dutch Fork in the third round, will face the Wando Saturday at River Bluff Stadium. The Patriots fell to Wando in the championship game last year.
“I’m just really proud of our guys” J.L. Mann coach Jay Dender said. “I’ve got a lot of young players on this team, so it’s really exciting. We’ll put the work in this week and go Saturday and hope for a different result than we had last year.”
J.L. Mann and Blythewood (19-6) moved the length of the field several times over, with neither team maintaining steady pressure in the opponent’s territory.
The Patriots had three shots on goal and three indirect free kicks leading to Bottari’s goal, while the Bengals were denied on four shots.
After falling into a 1-0 deficit, Blythewood had two free kicks and a corner kick to try to even the score but couldn’t get anything out of the chances.
In first-half extra time, Byrd skirted Blythewood goalkeeper Reid Hunter and kicked in the second and final goal of the evening.
“Our guys were able to get the ball on the ground and knock it around,” Dender said. “It’s one of our strengths. We can take a good physical game, but I like it when we can get the ball on the ground and move it around to open up some gaps. We had good pressure on them tonight and didn’t let them settle on the ball. We didn’t let (Blythewood forward) Grayson Barber turn with the ball, so I know he got frustrated.”
Blythewood also fell into opportunities that didn’t pan out.
“We had eight corner kicks,” Wittig said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have our chances, they just defended really well. I was proud of our guys, they came out in the second half thinking that we’ve got to make this happen, and we did spend some time in front of their goal, but we couldn’t put it in.”
Wittig said this year’s team has a lot to be proud of, having gone one game better than last year, which ended in a 3-2 loss in the third round at Dorman.
“We were happy to get past that third round,” Wittig said. “Every year has gotten better. The program is really coming along. Quality kids are coming in, and new kids are moving into the area every year. It’s exciting.”