Tim Gale hasn’t yet figured out who will make up his starting 11 as West Hall progresses further through the state playoffs. As long as the Spartans keep pulling out wins, however, he’ll have a while to tinker with his lineup.
Junior Richie Castruita scored his first hat trick of the season, and Sammy Coto added two goals as West Hall (9-1-2) flattened East Jackson 5-0 Friday night at Spartans Field in Oakwood to progress to the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs.
The Spartans will take on Savannah Arts Academy on Wednesday at home.
“We’ve got to do much better in possession, I thought we moved way too slow,” said Gale. “We didn’t move quick enough. We’ve got a lot of great teams coming up, so we’ll need to be better.”
West Hall was clinical with its shooting, but often failed to maintain the ball throughout the midfield, letting East Jackson (5-8-1) attempt breakaways off the run of play.
The bright spot was Castruita, who has gotten the green light to dip in from his position on the left wing to link up with Coto and fellow midfielder Simon Cobian in attack.
Cobian and Castruita opened the scoring in the 15th minute when the former played the latter into the box with a chip before Castruita finished off a fine half-volley past the right shoulder of East Jackson goalkeeper Driston Gaddis.
“I think I came to play my game today,” said Castruita. “Especially with it being the playoffs, it’s perfect timing. If we need help as a striker, I can go out. If we keep doing the plays that we can, we can go far.”
West Hall scored its next three goals in a five-minute stretch as the first half drew to a close. Cobian allowed Coto to double the Spartans’ lead to 2-0 when the striker latched on to a loose ball after Cobian did well to hold up possession in the Eagles’ box. Castruita converted on a penalty kick a minute later after he was cut down in the box, before Coto made it 4-0 by heading one home off of a Sergio Hernandez cross.
Savannah Arts (15-2-1) has won nine of its last 10 matches coming into Wednesday’s clash in Oakwood. West Hall has won its last seven games dating back to March 10.
The Spartans played their best with Cobian, Castruita and Coto all on the field, but Gale rested many of his starters throughout the second half.
Familiarity breeds comfort, according to Cobian. So does conditioning, which has allowed West Hall to switch its midfielders and strikers as the situation demands. Castruita finished off his hat trick in the 48th minute when he cut inside and finished off a right-footed shot past Gaddis (seven saves).
“We started running two laps around the school, and now we’re running five miles, at least, before practice,” said Cobian. “Not only do we communicate, but we move off the ball and think two passes ahead.”
The Eagles had their best shot at a consolation goal with less than 21 minutes to play when Jacob Hammonds sent a dipping cross to sophomore Mark Alarcon, but the striker hit the crossbar with his volley attempt.
It is the third straight year that East Jackson has been eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs.
Cesar Villa, West Hall’s starting goalkeeper, was used as a center midfielder in the second half while backup Jaime Hernandez earned a half between the posts.
Experience will be key for Gale in deciding his lineup. His upperclassmen have been around for last year’s run to the semifinals and a second-round appearance in 2012. Gale said he gives Castruita latitude to make decisions on the field as he sees fit.
“We like him to take it and get a cross in, or if he gets the opportunity, to run it at them,” said Gale. “He’s actually gotten much better at figuring out where to give the ball up or play with it. Experience is a big thing.”