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Wednesday January 27th, 2021 2:08PM

Boys soccer: Gainesville battles past Harrison in first round

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GAINESVILLE — The Gainesville boys soccer team knew that Friday's playoff opener with Harrison was no typical 1 vs. 4 seed match-up.

"Even a four seed from that region is capable of winning big games," Red Elephants coach Elie Viviant said of the Hoyas and Region 6-AAAAAA. "In our region they probably would have been a two seed."

Indeed, Harrison scrapped, battled and made Gainesville do the same, as the Red Elephants prevailed 2-0 in the first round of the postseason.

That Gainesville did so was thanks in large part to a typically-robust defensive effort and two decisive offensive moments in either half, as the Red Elephants (16-2) scored on a free kick and a penalty kick to seal the victory.

Cristian Rodriguez converted the free kick midway through the first half, before Brandon Reyna doubled the Red Elephants lead on the spot kick in the second half to push Gainesville into the second round.

"I think we're one of the four-five best teams in the state, but we're not going to win 5-0 against teams like this in the playoffs," Viviant said. "They moved us around physically for a little while. But once they started to get tired it became a little easier for us, and we were able to get the ball more in the second half. And we had several chances to score more."

Despite a cagey start, the Gainesville boys found a route to goal midway through the first half, as Rodriguez floated a 35-yard free kick toward the back post.

What initially looked like cross ended up in the back of the net, as Harrison goalkeeper Joseph Gill flapped at the ball as it sailed over his hands for a 1-0 Gainesville advantage with 24:47 left in the half.

"We had seen some moments like that on film, so we wanted to test their goalie there," Viviant said. 

The strike failed to invigorate the contest, however, and the Hoyas (9-10) and Red Elephants continued to slug it out in midfield, neither able to wrest control of a physical battle.

Gainesville's Cristian Jameis proved alert 15 minutes before the interval, sprinting across to snuff out a cross from Harrison's Connor Jenkins.

The Red Elephants' attack did begin to zero in on the Hoyas goal just before the half, as Rodriguez and Dennis Turcios each cannoned shots off the Harrison goal frame -- Rodriguez banging the crossbar eight minutes from the interval and Turcios slamming a shot off the post six minutes later.

Harrison also set off alarm bells in the Gainesville defense, however, when a Hoyas corner kick just one minute from time resulted in a melee in the Red Elephants' goalmouth. Gainesville cleared the danger, however, and maintained a one-goal lead at the interval.

The second half provided much of the same style of play -- but once again Gainesville's attack proved just a touch sharper.

The decisive moment came with just over 26 minutes remaining, as Turcios sprinted on to a loose ball and released Pedro Santos, storming through the middle. Santos was hacked down inside the Hoyas' penalty area, however, earning a spot kick for Gainesville.

Reyna converted the penalty, slipping as he shot but still forcing the ball past Gill for a 2-0 advantage with 26:28 remaining.

The contest was far from over, however, and Harrison kept Gainesville's defense alert throughout the final minutes.

Red Elephants goalkeeper Augustin Garcia tipped away lofted free kick with 25 minutes remaining and then parried Jenkins' point-blank shot after the Hoyas attacker broke through one-on-one with 15 minutes remaining.

Gainesville also missed opportunities to extend its lead, Bryan Oliveros heading Jorge Vasquez's inch-perfect cross straight at Gill before Rodriguez again struck the crossbar, this time blasting a 15-yard effort just off the frame. 

In the end it mattered little thanks to a strong defensive effort, as Gainesville marched on to the Sweet 16, where they will face Glynn Academy on Wednesday at City Park.

"It will take something for teams to beat us, especially here," Viviant said. "We haven't lost in 80 minutes this season. We lost in overtime, but no one has beaten us in regulation."

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