Speed carried Richmond Hill’s boys soccer team past South Effingham team and into the driver’s seat in Region 3-AAA.
Sam Vernon’s first-half goal was the difference, as the Wildcats beat the Mustangs 1-0 Tuesday night at The Corral in the region opener for both teams.
"I thought the difference was I had a little more speed in the midfield," veteran Wildcats coach Wade Wright said.
"I hate moral victories," Mustangs coach Paul Richards said. "But there is something positive to come out of this. We played significantly better. Richmond Hill controlled the center of the field in the first half. I thought we did a better job in the second half. We’re learning."
The game’s only score came midway through the first half on a pass that glanced off a Mustangs defender and wound up on Vernon’s foot. The sophomore raced through the defense, drawing keeper Ian Anderson out, and fired a shot from 25 yards away that zipped past the Mustangs’ senior.
Anderson turned in a host of sparkling saves. He denied Zach Payne with a kick save in the first three minutes and scrambled back to the goal line to snare Nic Harris’ shot after getting drawn off his line.
South Effingham’s best first-half scoring chance was thwarted when Wildcats keeper Zach Alltop dove to his left to smother James McGahee’s shot, with Andrew Kennedy closing in fast.
Anderson and the Mustangs also got some luck and some heads-up play to keep within one goal. Stephen Guarino beat Anderson on a rebound, but the Mustang defense cleared the ball out as it hopped toward the goal line. With less than 20 seconds to go in the half, Brian Adams’ shot sailed just over the crossbar.
With a strong gust blowing across the field, the Mustangs struggled to use the breeze to their advantage in the first half. In fact, the team going against the wind was usually the one to generate the better scoring chances.
"Isn’t that strange?" Richards said. "The ball was moving quickly and skipping off the turf. Both teams had a tough time running the ball down. Both teams like to play the ball down into the corner, but we were playing it from too deep."
It was the Mustangs’ first game in nearly two weeks, and Richards believed it showed, especially with a team that has more freshmen than seniors.
"Richmond Hill’s had six matches; we’ve had three. It was a noticeable difference," he said. "Richmond Hill had a sharper team. We were rusty."
South Effingham started the second half with two excellent chances. Alltop had to leap to get his hands on Niko Vandevoorde’s blast from 30 yards out just 19 seconds into the half.
Nine minutes later, Vandevoorde set up Kennedy in the middle of the Wildcats’ box. Kennedy turned and fired a quick shot, but Alltop made a fingertip save, deflecting the ball over the top of the net.
But the Wildcats held the Mustangs at bay, using their speed on long passes to keep South Effingham bottled up.
"We did a good job of holding the line," Wright said.
Anderson was tested again, getting his leg on Vernon’s shot with 19 minutes to play and 25 seconds later cutting off the angle on Harris’ attempt.
"I give all the credit to Paul," said Wright. "They’re scrappy."
Having won the region opener, Wright and the Wildcats (2-4-2) are in an advantageous and envious position.
"Everybody has to come to me now. You have to beat us now," Wright said. "We have a lot to be excited about right now as we jump into the region schedule."
He also believes his counterpart at South Effingham will have designed something to counteract Richmond Hill’s speed in two weeks when the two teams meet again.
"He’ll have a solution," Wright said.
Other recent games include two non region losses. On Feb. 29, the Wildcats lost 1-0 to the undefeated, highly ranked Wayne County team. On March 5, Savannah Country Day beat Richmond Hill 2-0.
Wright said he benched many of his recouping starters, who are rebounding from illness and injury, in the SCD game and used that match as a "training game". He also said his team has yet to play one game this year with a full varsity squad due to injuries and illness. The most recent injury is Zach Payne, who dislocated toe at the SEHS game.
This week includes against region foes Liberty, BC and an SEHS rematch.
"With all the adversity this team has faced since day one, whether we win region or not the composure, maturity, and effort these boys have demonstrated is second to none," Wright said. "They never once doubted themselves. To me, that is a testament to the strength of the program. Looking at the big picture right now, Richmond Hill has a lot to be proud of."
- Ross Blair contributed to this story.