Class AAA state title game: West Hall vs. Calhoun/Decatur
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mercer University, Macon
Tickets: $12, per GHSA rules
The feeling still didn’t sink in for Bradley Hodgson, as he jogged off the pitch at Spartan Field to greet his jubilant family Tuesday night in Oakwood.
It just didn’t seem real that Hodgson, West Hall’s starting right-back, would score the goal that ultimately ensured West Hall’s berth into the Class AAA boys soccer state final.
The senior defender launched a 45-yard free kick past the fingertips of goalkeeper Gil Herrera-Bleyle in the 25th minute to ensure a 2-0 win over Oconee County that will send the Spartans to Saturday’s championship game at Mercer University in Macon. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
“It was like no way,” he said, a wide grin plastered on his face. “It took a couple minutes to realize that it had even happened. And on the one day I had 15 of my family members here!”
Hodgson’s kin, many of whom had traveled from California, chose the right game to watch. Richie Castruita scored his 14th goal of the season to put West Hall (12-1-2) on top in the 19th minute before Hodgson scored to give the Spartans their first title game berth since 2009.
Spartans coach Tim Gale praised his remaining starters after midfielder Simon Cobian (fractured eye socket) and defender Ronald Portillo (head laceration) were both ruled out earlier in the day. Even Steve Rodriguez, one of Gale’s first choices at center midfield, was a game-time decision with a sprained MCL.
Portillo is expected to start in Saturday’s final, while the team continues to monitor Cobian.
“They have really big hearts,” said Gale. “I can’t take some credit for how they played, but I’ll take some credit for keeping them in the right direction. I knew we could always count on people like Simon and Ronny, but we also have a deep bench that can step up when they need to.”
Despite bossing the center of the field early, Oconee County (15-6) never had an answer for West Hall’s speed, especially with Castruita or Jon McCain whipping down either wing. After missing his two efforts, including one shot that was cleared off the line, Castruita finally broke the deadlock just after the quarter-hour mark.
The speedy striker cut in from the left sideline before taking a shot on the edge of the 6-yard box. The right-footed strike bounced up off the leg of Warriors defender Simon Hunt before deflecting past Herrera-Bleyle (three saves) into the goal.
Castruita (VIDEO INTERVIEW HERE) has scored seven goals so far in the playoffs, including hat tricks against Coahulla Creek and East Jackson.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect it to go in,” he said. “But once I saw the deflection, it couldn’t make me happier.”
Whereas Castruita is expected to shoot, Hodgson said he had no idea that his free kick six minutes later would find the net. He said he expected to put up a hanging cross just in front of Herrera-Bleyle, in the hopes that one of his strikers would get a touch on the ball.
Instead, Hodgson’s floated cross fooled the Oconee County goalkeeper in the air. Herrera-Bleyle could only get a hand on it before the ball fell into the net for a 2-0 advantage.
“I’m about the least likely guy to score here on this team,” he said, laughing. “I just kicked it as far as I could. It still hasn’t hit me, When we’re driving to Macon, that’s where it’ll hit me.”
The Warriors had defeated West Hall in both of the last two playoff runs. West Hall will take on today’s winner of Calhoun/Decatur in the other semifinal.
The last time West Hall played for the boys soccer state championship in 2009, defender Eduardo Magana drove with his brother Fernando to watch the Spartans play St. Pius X. Now that he’ll get to make title game memories of his very own, Magana said the team will need to stay focused.
“It’s always fun to have a chance to go for a ring, go for the championship,” he said. “This team’s hungry, it wants it.”
Magana played without usual center-back Portillo for the first time in the playoffs, but got good performances by backups Manny Mata and Jonathan Corona, who took turns to fill in.
Spartans goalkeeper Cesar Villa (six saves) saw few shots, but was tested on each one as the Warriors battled for a consolation goal in the final 20 minutes. Villa did very well to deny Jake LeFeuvre with six minutes to go when the senior took a hard shot from the left wing.
Oconee County striker Mehran Ahmadipour missed a golden opportunity to keep the Warriors in the game when he stole the ball off of Villa as the goalkeeper dribbled out of his own area in the first half, but Ahmadipour shot high from 25 yards and crumpled to the ground in dismay.
West Hall hasn’t trailed so far in the playoffs, and has only given up one goal.
“Our defense, our back line just did an outstanding job today,” said Gale. “We haven’t been down much in these playoffs, so we’re going to have to stay mentally strong in case we are.”