The battle of the two top teams in the state in Class AAA did not disappoint anyone who decided to make their way out to East Hall on Friday night.
The top-ranked Vikings (20-1) knocked No. 2 Blessed Trinity (13-6-1) out in the quarterfinal matchup in a 4-3 decision that looked like a done deal at halftime.
With the victory, East Hall will move on to play Savannah Arts Academy at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the semifinals.
“What a hell of a game,” senior forward Leo Toledo said. “It was a great game. They brought out the best of us and showed us what we need to work on, what we need to do better. Just with this (win), I feel we can go all the way now.”
The Titans were obviously well aware of the offensive prowess East Hall displayed throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs. From the start, Blessed Trinity played a 5-4-1, putting five players on their defensive line in effort to slow the Vikings.
Toledo opened up the scoring in the first two postseason games, both in the fourth minute or less, and Friday was no different.
In the eighth minute, Toledo received a long pass down the left side with four of the five defenders between him and the goal.
The senior attacked two of them, driving deep inside the box. Goalkeeper Robbie Riely advanced on Toledo, who slipped the ball just past Riely.
Three minutes later, Sergio Turcios put a beautiful pass through the Blessed Trinity defense to find Toledo. Toledo once again drew the keeper and beat him with a simple touch for a 2-0 lead.
In the 36th minute, the striker solidified his hat trick.
A foul on the Titans put the ball about 30 yards from goal, nearly on the touch line. Turcios spotted up the ball and delivered a cross that found Toledo in the middle of the box for a headed shot, which flew just under the crossbar.
With the game seemingly in hand, the Vikings took to the locker room, leaving Blessed Trinity to discuss how to pull back into the game.
“I think our game strategy in the beginning worked well,” East Hall coach Chris Horton said. “We got a 3-0 lead and we missed many, many opportunities.”
At the break, the Titans only had three shots with one on goal. East Hall had nine with four on goal.
After the start of the second half, it took 14 minutes for the first goal to come, this time it was Blessed Trinity.
With the ball bouncing around the 18-yard box, lone striker Ben Drabik was able to flick the ball over East Hall keeper Amir Solis.
From that point, the physicality that made the first half a great back-and-forth of play between the two squads amped up to more than just shoulder-to-shoulder competition for loose balls. The Titans were playing with a newfound aggressiveness and the Vikings rose to match it.
Blessed Trinity was able to pull within one in the 27th minute as an East Hall foul just outside the box gave defender Trei Ellis Schwartz a free kick from just outside the 18-yard box.
The senior stepped up and delivered a strike and dialed up the tension already seemingly floating through the stadium.
Just inside the 30th minute, East Hall got its two-goal cushion back.
Toledo took the ball and a trio of defenders on a run toward the goal. The forward drove toward the goal line and stopped on a dime just short of the line, sending one of the defenders sliding out of play.
With two defenders still between him and the goal, Toledo dropped the ball off for Diego Ramirez, who took a one-touch blast into the net. The goal sent the team and fans into a frenzy.
Then, the unexpected happened.
“I was thinking pretty comfortably at 4-2 we would stay there,” Horton said. “A little lapse in judgment was made and we gave up a goal.”
On the restart, Drabik blasted the ball toward goal from midfield.
Solis, the East Hall keeper, came up to make a play on the fly ball, but misjudged it.
The ball deflected off Solis’ gloves and into the goal with just seven seconds gone off the clock.
East Hall fans were in disbelief and Blessed Trinity fans were now the ones celebrating.
After the goal, Toledo rallied the troops.
“I got the guys together and said, ‘Hey, man, we have to finish this,’” Toledo said. “‘Let’s just finish this off. Let’s just play and move on.' The defense picked it up after that.”
The remaining 10 minutes were as chippy and physical as a soccer game could get without turning into a wrestling match. In that time, only one card was handed out by the referee, a yellow directed toward the Vikings’ bench after one of East Hall’s players was wrapped up and slammed face first.
With the final horn, fans rushed the field and the Vikings were quick to join them for a celebration.
“I think, overall, we controlled the game,” Horton said. “They’re a good team. They have a great counter attack and a lot more size then we do, so it made it tough on our smaller defensive line. Overall, I think our defense played well.”
This group of seniors is headed back to the Final Four for the second time. It also played in the Elite Eight last year.
“A senior group that’s played in an Elite Eight and now two Final Fours … it’s nice,” Horton said. “That confidence, you can see it out there. When things didn’t go perfectly, they stepped up.”
Now that they’ve passed the No. 2 team in the state, Toledo sees just one more goal left.
“Just win state.”