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High school soccer: Gainesville boys program falls to Cambridge, 3-0, in Class 6A semifinals
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Cristian Rodriguez of Gainesville (12) kicks the ball on Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Milton, during the Class 6A boys state soccer semifinal game against Cambridge High School. - photo by David Barnes

MILTON — Elie Viviant usually asserts any soccer team that wins by three or more goals has thoroughly outplayed its opponent.

But he didn’t believe that principle applied to his Gainesville High boys in their Class 6A semifinal match Tuesday, May 8.

In a game defined by controversial calls, the Red Elephants fell against top-ranked Cambridge, 3-0, in Milton. The loss denied No. 1 seed Gainesville (18-3) a return trip to the state championship game after falling short on that stage a year ago.

“I thought we outplayed them for a good part of the game,” Viviant said. “But they had the home-field advantage, and I feel like if we would have played at City Park, it would have made a difference with the way the ball bounces and how wide we can play.

“To me, we played well. This felt more like 1-0.”

A few calls were enough to change the complexion of the game. Though Viviant said the officials acted within the rules, he was a bit perplexed by some of their judgement calls.

The first occurred when the Red Elephants had a potential game-tying penalty kick waved off for a double-touch infraction. Then referees did not force the top-seeded Bears (20-1) to play with a man down for much of the second half after one of their players received a red card because time had already been stopped and the player had left the field.

Still, third-ranked Gainesville squandered ample scoring opportunities and was in the game until Cambridge notched two goals in the final 5 minutes, 15 seconds.

“We couldn’t score, and their goalie was impressive today,” Viviant said. “To win in soccer, you have to be able to score goals. I might not be happy with some of the decisions that were made (by the officials), but you still have to be able to score.”

With blazing speed up top, Cambridge defenders bided their time passing the ball around until their forwards got loose to make attacking runs at the Gainesville goal.

The Bears’ strategy eventually paid off in the 14th minute when John Crawley got behind the Red Elephants’ back line and drew hard contact that resulted in a penalty kick.

Ethan Rose stepped in to take the shot, firing a rocket into the upper-right corner of the net past the outstretched hands of Gainesville goalie Augustin Garcia.

Less than five minutes later, the Red Elephants returned the favor — or seemed to, at least.

An illegal Cambridge tackle on Pedro Santos in the 18-yard box gave Gainesville a penalty kick of its own, which Edwin Garcia attempted. His initial shot appeared to go off the hands of Cambridge goalkeeper Nic Sides and then hit the left post, allowing Edwin Garcia to collect the ball and slot it in over the goalie.

Officials, however, waved off the goal amid the Red Elephants’ celebration, sparking passionate protest by Edwin Garcia and Viviant. 

Gainesville’s coach said the refs determined Sides never touched the ball, making it illegal for Edwin Garcia to be the first player to apply another touch. 

“If it’s 1-1 right there, that changes the game,” Viviant said. “Instead of them being able to sit back and not attack us, the game would be tied and they’d have to play up some more.”

Yet the game was more wide open in the second half, with the teams combining to take 13 shots, mostly in the final 20 minutes. Crawley drew a red card after storming away from an official with 33:32 to play, though Cambridge kept 11 men on the field.

“At that point, he was technically a sub because he was on the bench and time had been stopped,” Viviant said. “He was already off the field, so the red card didn’t cost them a man.”

The Red Elephants continued pushing for an equalizer, sending three shots on goal and recording some near misses on decent opportunities before the Bears put the game away in the 75th minute.

Reece Degen broke loose for a shot from the right side, but Augustin Garcia managed to make a diving save. Despite the effort to keep the deficit at just one goal, Jarvin Ramirez booted the ball in from the opposite side before Gainesville’s goalkeeper could recover.

Three minutes later, the Bears earned another penalty kick, which Degen converted to put his team ahead 3-0.

That was the result of another strange call — Augustin Garcia had made a jumping save to punch a shot away before a late whistle came in. Viviant said officials told him one of his players illegally tackled the shooter in the box following his attempt, which still warranted a penalty shot.

The Red Elephants will lose four seniors to graduate, while Cambridge advances to the state championship game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at McEachern High in Powder Springs.

Though the final tally will show Gainesville lost by three goals in the semifinals, Viviant walked away proclaiming the game was much closer than that.

“I have a tendency to say that teams who win 3-0 usually were much better than the team they beat,” he said. “But I didn’t think they were that much better than us tonight.”