ATLANTA - For Tom DiPiro, the inevitability of Aquinas' state playoff run seemed excruciating.
He watched the Irish's second-round and quarterfinal game from the sideline, serving a two-game suspension for drawing a red card in the opening game of the Class AA/A boys' soccer tournament.
"All I could do was watch and try not to think about the fact that each game could be the last one," the senior said.
His teammates gave him a chance to finish his high school career on the field, winning the two games he missed.
He helped extend Aquinas' season one more game Wednesday, scoring a goal in a 2-1 victory over Lovett in the state semifinals.
"That was great for him," coach Kevin Kennedy said. "Everybody on this team knows how hard the last two games were on him."
The win sends the Irish to the first state championship game in school history. They'll face Savannah Christian on Saturday in Augusta. Game time is yet to be determined.
Jordan Gilbert scored the other goal for Aquinas, which improved its record to 18-4-1. Joe Fox and Adam Ribock added an assist each.
The teams spent the first half testing each other's strengths and weaknesses. Lovett went the first 25 minutes without a shot on goal against Aquinas' stout defense. The Lions' only real chances at scoring came on corner kicks.
Aquinas' offensive strategy, meanwhile, was to create scoring opportunities with their speedy wings, sending the ball down the sideline and flooding the area in front of the goal with players looking for headers or rebound shots.
Aquinas played a more conservative style in the second half, relying less on run outs and more on ball control. The ball stayed on Lovett's end of the field as a result, and the Irish eventually found opportunities.
"I thought we had three or four real good scoring chances in the first half; we just weren't possessing the ball very well," Kennedy said. "That's one thing I stressed at halftime. We needed our central players to control the ball in the penalty box."
DiPiro did just that. He scored the first goal in the 51st minute, taking a soft pass from Fox and driving the ball home from 20 yards out. Fox attracted three defenders while dribbling the ball near the goal line, leaving DiPiro wide open.
DiPiro nearly mishandled the pass but had enough time to recover and line up his shot before Lovett's defense could recover.
"They didn't mark the players in the back of the box the whole game," DiPiro said. "I made a bad first touch and was still able to score."
Gilbert made the score 2-0 11 minutes later, heading in a long throw-in from Ribock. The senior midfielder made throw-ins as dangerous as corner kicks throughout the game, tossing the ball into the penalty box more than a dozen times.
Lovett's Brad Brizendine cut Aquinas' lead to 2-1 in the 63rd minute. Brizendine, Lovett's leading scorer with 10 goals coming into the game, timed a through pass from Jack Hall perfectly, getting behind Aquinas' defense while staying onside and driving a shot into the goal.
The loss deprived the Lions a chance to win its second state title in three years. Lovett won the Class AAA title in 2003.
Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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