Diego Vacca has seen the top of the mountain — and he’ll hope to use this year’s strong playoff run to fuel his Riverside boys soccer team for its new crop of players.
The third-ranked Eagles (14-3) fell 4-0 to a stout Pace Academy team that earned its fourth straight shutout in a comprehensive win in the Class AA quarterfinals Saturday afternoon in Gainesville.
Johnny Reece scored in each half, while Avery Herman and Ethan Robinson also picked up goals to lead the fifth-ranked Knights (12-4) to a state semifinal appearance in their first year in Class AA.
“It’s always tough,” said Vacca, who consoled a team of dejected Eagles on the sidelines. “These kids, they live here, breathe here, and when it doesn’t go their way, you make some mistakes, it’s hard for them.
Since falling in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Riverside put together a breakout regular season this spring, led by striker Guillermo Cruz-Celis (24 goals) and goalkeeper Robert Pee (nine shutouts).
But the Eagles gave up two quick goals in the first half, then fell behind 3-0 just 12 seconds after halftime to break its 12-game winning streak coming into Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup.
Freshman Ricardo Policarpo had Riverside’s best chance of the game when he single-handedly dribbled past three defenders in the 67th minute, but his right-footed effort was batted away by Pace’s Samuel Sloman (three saves).
The Eagles managed just one shot on goal in the first half, and finished with five attempts on target for the game.
“It was one of the best defensive performances of the year,” said Knights coach Brooks Fleming. “They’ve been so strong all year. We’ve had a lot of close region games, so coming in here, with a hostile environment, they showed composure and poise.”
Pace Academy will host region rival Wesleyan School for the third time this season, this time for a berth to the state final next week in Macon. The Knights defeated Wesleyan (12-8) both times the teams have met so far.
The season ended sooner than expected for Vacca’s team, which will lose at least six seniors, including Cruz-Celis, Pee and two starting defenders.
Herman opened the scoring for Pace, which has won eight of its last 10 games. Sophomore Tom Phillips played in a bouncing cross to Herman, who finished with ease on his right foot in the 22nd minute.
Five minutes later, the Eagles had given up a penalty when defender Eduardo Troetsch pulled down Robinson in the box. Reece then stepped up to finish off the spot-kick to Pee’s right-hand side.
A normally hot Riverside offense never showed up against Pace when it needed to the most. The Eagles scored 24 unanswered goals in its previous four wins, but had trouble moving the ball from defense to attack.
“I think it was exasperation,” said Vacca. “We couldn’t possess the ball too much, and that caused us to panic a little, it only made it harder. Pace wasn’t going to sit back and take that.”
The Knights piled on the pressure soon after the halftime break when Robinson stole Riverside’s possession on the opening kickoff, ran the length of the field and slid home Pace’s third goal of the game in the 41st minute.
“That third goal, I think it took the gas out of them,” said Fleming.
By the time Reece earned his second goal, off a direct free kick just outside the box, the Eagles’ season was long since finished.
Vacca said he’s looking toward the future, where he’ll employ a strong junior varsity side and mold the new crop of student-athletes who join the military academy in the coming school year.
“It’s always a new challenge, and I like that,” he said. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing what comes next season.”