Patriots cap an unlikely turnaround

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When his team started the season with one win in seven games, senior back Willie Hunt thought back to 2007.

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Lander's Craig Hughes (center) goes up for a header against Francis Marion's Julian Ramjohn during Sunday night's Peach Belt title game. Francis Marion won with a goal in overtime.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Lander's Craig Hughes (center) goes up for a header against Francis Marion's Julian Ramjohn during Sunday night's Peach Belt title game. Francis Marion won with a goal in overtime.

A season ago, Francis Marion finished next-to-last in league play at 5-12-1. Hunt had yet to play on a winning team, and he was staring at another potential losing season.

"We thought maybe this was going to be another year," he said. "I'm so happy it turned around. This is awesome. It's my senior year. I'm glad to be part of it."

Hunt scored on a header 2 minutes into overtime, as Francis Marion capped its magical season Sunday night with a 1-0 win over Lander in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game.

The Patriots (13-4-3), the regular-season conference champions, extended their unbeaten streak to 14 games. The win likely puts Francis Marion into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.

Francis Marion entered the contest as the No. 5 team in the Southeast Region -- the top six teams advance to postseason play. The Peach Belt doesn't receive an automatic bid for its men's champion.

"If it doesn't, we have a serious flaw in the system," Francis Marion coach Kevin Varnado said of the win at Blanchard Woods Park in Evans qualifying his team for postseason play.

It's been quite a turnaround for the Patriots, who opened the season allowing 18 goals in six games. Varnado switched formations and personnel. In the past 14 contests, the Patriots have allowed eight total goals.

The defense and goalie Clark Richeson continued their strong play. Richeson's diving punch save of Jarnie Davison's attempt from 15 yards out in the first overtime, one of eight saves, kept the Patriots alive.

"He's amazing back there," Hunt said. "He communicates with us. He keeps the ball out of the net. He makes our job easy."

Lander goalie Billy Hale was equally tough, making five saves. Late in the second half, he leaped high and tipped Emerson Peredo's attempt from just outside the penalty box over the crossbar.

Both teams had their chances in regulation and the first overtime. Francis Marion failed to score on 11 corner kicks. The 12th time was the charm.

Midfielder Adrian Sikorski hit a perfect corner kick to the front of the net. Hunt, the tournament MVP, sent a header past Hale, sending the team into euphoria.

"Excellent run and finish by Willie," Varnado said. "You can't draw it up any better than that."

COLUMBUS STATE WOMEN 2, UNC PEMBROKE 1 (OT)

In the women's championship, Stephanie Parrish scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner 3 minutes into overtime, to lift the fifth-ranked Lady Cougars to victory.

Columbus State (19-3-1) won its third tournament title in a row, all three wins coming in overtime. No. 10 UNC Pembroke (18-2-1) suffered its second defeat of the season to the Lady Cougars.

Rebecca Womack scored off a free kick 16 minutes after halftime to put the Lady Braves up. Parrish responded in the 80th minute off an assist from Jill Walthall.

Columbus State defender Leslie Mathews was named tournament MVP.

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

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