By J. Daniel Pearson
For the News-Gazette
For 40 minutes on Wednesday night, the Viera Hawks soccer team applied constant pressure to Noah Craig, plastering shot after shot at the St. Cloud goaltender. But the senior made stop after stop, and even on the few occasions when a ball got by him, a St. Cloud defender was there to sweep it off the line.
In all, Viera had at least a dozen solid scoring chances in the first half, compared to two by St. Cloud. But when Bulldog Coach Weylan Craig looked up at halftime and saw his charges scoreless 0-0 with the 17-2-2 Hawks at halftime, he felt both relieved and optimistic.
“Without question we were fortunate not be down two or three goals at the half,” Craig said. “But we have been a second half team all year. We made some small adjustments at halftime and I told our kids that we were playing great on defense but we still had to put the ball in the back of the net to win.”
The adjustment Craig made was to spread his wings to the outside in attempt to open the offense up a little. “They had their three fullbacks bunched and were basically clogging the middle of the field and that’s where we were trying to attack from. I felt if we took the ball wider, it would open things up,” the veteran coach said.
That strategy paid off quickly, as Robert Miralda took a ball down the left flank and sent a pass all the way across the field to a streaking Kevin Prado – who buried a shot in the upper left hand corner of the net to give St. Cloud a 1-0 lead just two minutes into the second half.
Four minutes later, the Bulldogs would strike again with Prado and Miralda again playing key parts. This time, Viera would turn the ball over on its end of the field, Prado headed a ball toward the box and Miralda directed it into the net for his fifth goal of the season to up St. Cloud up two-nil.
Craig would come up with two more huge saves at the 32 and 26-minute marks, before St. Cloud would get a freak goal to put the game away. Craig took a free kick from the other side of the midfield line, and the ball floated toward the Viera goal, where defender Stephen McHale attempted to clear it but ended up heading it into his own goal.
Trailing 3-0, the Hawks would then lose their composure, picking up two red cards in the final 21 minutes, and finishing the game down two men.
“I cannot say enough about our defense. Noah was outstanding in goal, but the whole back line of Jack Baillie, Jeison Moreno, Ernesto Martinez and Mariano Martinez really got after it tonight,” Craig added. “All season long, we have relied on our defense to carry the team and to record a shutout against a very talented Viera team is a huge accomplishment. We’re definitely in uncharted waters, but it’s been a fun journey. I am extremely proud of this group and what they have accomplished.”
The win puts St. Cloud (15-5-1) into a regional semifinal for the first time in school history, where they will meet top seeded George Jenkins (17-3-1) in Lakeland today at 7 p.m.
“It will be another difficult challenge against really good team,” Craig noted. “We’ll have our work cut out for us.”