Alan Lopez had an open look about 25 yards away from the goal. He heard his teammate yell at him to shoot it, and so he did.
Sweetwater’s junior midfielder had no idea that the ball would arc about an inch over the outstretched fingers of Chuckey-Doak’s goalkeeper into the upper right corner of the net to put the Wildcats ahead 3-2 with 7:15 left in Saturday’s Class A Sectional.
And after fending off the Black Knights’ threats at an equalizer those last few minutes, the Wildcats celebrated in the middle of their home field at Sweetwater High School, having clinched the boys’ soccer program’s first-ever berth in the TSSAA state tournament.
“I don’t even have words for it,” said Lopez about what ultimately turned out to be the winning score. “I was like ‘Let’s go,’ and now we’re in state.”
And they’re going to Murfreesboro sooner than even coach Ricardo Torres could’ve imagined. But returning almost all of its players from last year’s District 4-A championship team, Sweetwater (17-4) was equipped to make this sort of run. This year’s Wildcats defended their district title and also added a Region 2-A championship earlier this week.
“I wasn’t expecting to go to state this soon, but I can’t complain about that,” Torres said. “The kids responded very well to the ups and downs and everything, and they did good.”
And the Wildcats had to respond to one of those downs Saturday. Sweetwater led 1-0 at the half after a physical first half in which both teams had good chances to knock in goals. But with 7:31 before the break, Jonathan Cano’s line drive from directly in front of the goal, after Diego Lopez penetrated the box and passed to him, put the Wildcats ahead.
“We didn’t connect our passes very well and we had some bad touches,” Torres said. “But we scored a goal, and that helped us a little bit, but we still didn’t play as good as I was expecting us to.”
But Chuckey-Doak’s senior striker Braden Binaghi set a whole different tone quickly to start the second half. Binaghi took a pass after the half-opening kickoff into Sweetwater’s 18-yard box and slotted home an equalizer 20 seconds in.
And then not even two minutes later, Binaghi broke down the right side of the field and angled a line drive into the corner of the net to suddenly put the Black Knights up 2-1.
“He’s very skilled anywhere we put him on the field, and he’s worked super-hard all four years for us, and I appreciate everything he does,” said Chuckey-Doak coach Cory Braithwaite about Binaghi. “That was great, we got those two, and we had some life.”
But now staring at a deficit, Sweetwater found new life, as well. And less than two minutes after Binaghi’s go-ahead score, Diego Lopez lasered his shot past the keeper to even the score at 2-2.
“I was mad the whole game because we were down, and then when I scored, that brought the whole team together,” said Diego Lopez, no relation to Alan. “The whole team got more energy in the game. It was so different after I scored the goal, and everyone tried so hard.”
Neither team could break through again until Alan Lopez’s winner, but the game continued to be played at a fast pace after that scoring flurry in the second half’s first four minutes. Four yellow cards were issued in the second half, and both teams took several free kicks after fouls.
“After Alan scored that goal, my players on the bench were very excited, and it really changed the way we played,” Torres said.
Chuckey-Doak’s best two chances at a tying goal were a corner kick with six minutes left and a free kick from just outside Sweetwater’s 18-yard box with 2:50 on the clock. The free kick was a couple feet wide right of the goal and just out of reach of a teammate attempting a one-touch finish.
Sweetwater kicked four corners to Chuckey-Doak’s three, but the Black Knights had a 13-7 shots on goal advantage. Keeper Jaxon Marlow tallied 11 saves for the Wildcats.
The Class A state tournament begins for Sweetwater at 4 p.m. CDT (5 p.m. EDT) Tuesday at the Richard Siegel Soccer Complex in Murfreesboro. The Wildcats play Franklin Grace Christian Academy in the first round. The tournament is single elimination.
The Black Knights finished their season with a 10-9 record, which included the District 1-A championship and Region 1-A runner-up to defending Class A state champion Gatlinburg-Pittman.
“It’s been a great season,” Braithwaite said. “This is my first year as head coach, but I’ve been with these seniors all four years, and I’m proud of how hard they’ve worked. It’s been a privilege to coach these boys, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”