In a span of less than two minutes, the Gainesville boys soccer team seized control of its Class 6A state quarterfinal match against Centennial.
And now the Red Elephants are back in the state semifinals for the first time since 2012.
Cristian Rodriguez scored on a free kick in the 25th minute, and Brandon Reyna’s chip into the box forced a Centennial own goal soon after to power top-seeded Gainesville’s 3-1 win on a rainy Saturday night at City Park.
The Red Elephants (18-2) will face fellow No. 1 seed and powerhouse Dalton at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Gainesville after winning the coin flip to determine which team would host the semifinal. Gainesville coach Elie Viviant performed the coin flip minutes after Saturday’s game and was relieved to have home field advantage against the top-ranked team in Class 6A.
Dalton won 7-0 in each of its first two playoff games before defeating Cambridge 4-1 in the quarterfinals.
“We have nothing to lose,” Viviant said. “Everyone says they are the best team. And when I look on paper and watch them, I’d say they’re probably a bit better than us. But our guys have been fighting, and we appear to be peaking right now.”
That was apparent Saturday night as the Red Elephants stifled the Knights (16-5), who entered the game scoring 3.75 goals per game and had posted 11 between its two postseason matches.
But Gainesville’s trademark defense that had allowed only 14 goals all season held firm for the most part. Don Deedson Vixamar, Centennial’s primary scoring threat, netted a header off a free kick in the 62nd minute that cut into the Red Elephants’ 3-0 lead.
The only other breakdown Viviant could point to was a miscommunication between his goalie and center back in the first half that nearly resulted in a goal.
“Besides that, they really didn’t have much,” the coach said. “ … We were solid in the back tonight.”
Gainesville produced a good opportunity in the opening minutes, only for Derian Alarcon to collide with the Knight’s goalie, who left the game with an injury. But Viviant said he didn’t see that as having too much of an influence on the contest because Centennial had rotated both goalkeepers all season.
Yet the Red Elephants capitalized nonetheless when Rodriguez squeezed a free kick from about 25 yards out between the crossbar and the goalie’s outstretched hand.
Not long after, Reyna chipped a ball into the box that a Knights defender tried to clear with a header. But the ball bounced backward off his head and into his own net as Gainesville benefitted from an own goal for the second straight game, an oddity Viviant about which could only laugh.
“We knew they had let goals in throughout the season, and this is not their first own goal this year,” Viviant said.
The downpour stopped during halftime, but intermittent rains persisted throughout the second half as the Red Elephants unleashed a flurry of shots despite players from both sides struggling with their footing in the sloppy conditions..
Jovanei Santana put Gainesville ahead 3-0 in the 60th minute off an assistant from Pedro Santos. Santana took a few touches inside the 18-yard box before whipping a right-footed kick across the goalie’s face into the left-hand pocket of the net.
The chippy game came to a head in the 65th minute when officials issued red cards to both Gainesville’s Jorge Vasquez and Centennial’s Osvaldo Cabrales.
After notching two-goal wins in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Red Elephants — winners of 11 straight — now face the favorite to win it all. Gainesville’s last trip to the semifinals resulted in an appearance in the state championship game, and Viviant’s squad is hoping history will repeat itself.
“We’re happy to be at home. People are surprised by the width of the field and the speed of the game here,” Viviant said. “Luckily, everyone was healthy today and ready to play. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to play Tuesday against Dalton.”