Defense lifts Thoroughbreds

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AIKEN --- Wide open in front of the Myrtle Beach goal, Brett Van Pelt collected the ball and wondered what would happen next. The way the afternoon was going for the South Aiken boys soccer team, this shot was going to dribble wide of the goal or be laced straight at the goalkeeper.

"We had so many chances that we kept missing them, you get in that mind-set: I don't wanna miss, I don't wanna miss, I don't wanna miss," Van Pelt said, explaining his thoughts.

Van Pelt collected his composure and didn't miss. His goal with 2:50 left gave South Aiken the lift it needed to survive the intense final moments of its second consecutive 2-0 Class AAA playoff victory. The Thoroughbreds, in a state semifinal for the first time since winning the overall title in 2005, will play Airport or Brookland-Cayce for the Lower State championship at home Tuesday night, one night after its girls team also plays for the Lower State title at home.

Van Pelt set up his team's first goal, crossing to Dan Riley, whose shot leaked into the goal off the left post five minutes into the second half. They went more than 30 minutes without scoring again, wasting at least a half dozen prime chances. South Aiken coach Paul Waters cited late-season fatigue for the failed chances, because his team was less than 48 hours removed from a competitive second-round win over Socastee and playing under an intense sun. The game started at noon, because Myrtle Beach was holding its prom that night.

"For a very long time I held my breath," he said. "We got pushed very hard ... very heavy legs. Our heavy legs had a lot to do (with) it, but our conditioning kicked in the second half. At times, we found that extra gear and that's what put it away."

South Aiken's defensive 3-5-2 formation, which featured all senior backs in front of senior goalkeeper Chad Christensen, hasn't allowed a goal in three playoff games.

Ahead 1-0, South Aiken kept two forwards up top to attack instead of clamping down and defending with all 10 field players. The strategy helped create the late goal that made the final moments stress-free.

"We told them early offense is going to win games, but defense is going to help us get this championship," Waters said. "A lot of credit goes to these defenders."

Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or matt.middleton@augustachronicle.com.


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