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Friday July 19th, 2019 2:39AM

PLAYOFF SOCCER: Bautista sparks Red Elephants to 6A championship match

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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GAINESVILLE — Eduardo Bautista finally got his moment to shine.

After having to sit out the 2018 season with an injury, the senior Gainesville keeper has made the most of his opportunities in the 2019 playoffs. None have been bigger than Tuesday night’s performance in the Class 6A semifinals against Cambridge.

Bautista stopped three shots during the penalty kick phase and sparked the Red Elephants to a 2-2 (3-2 in PKs) win over the Bears at City Park Stadium.

He also made more than half-a-dozen saves during the regulation and overtime periods to give Gainesville a chance at its second championship match appearance in three seasons.

“I didn’t get to play last year so to be able to play this year and help the team is all I wanted,” Bautista said. “That may be the best game I’ve ever played. It just feels great.”

Gainesville coach Elie Viviant agreed.

“I don’t think (Eduardo) has had a better game in his career. Just a great effort,” Viviant said.

Gainesville (18-2-1) next will take on Dalton, a 6-1 winner over Pope in the other semifinal, at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at McEachern High School for the Class 6A title.

The Red Elephants’ run to the championship match has been a remarkable one. They have had to endure sustained injuries to several key players during the season and only dressed 13 in a second-round win over 2018 state champion Chattahoochee.

Both teams were exhausted after 95 minutes of action and Viviant said the game’s opening sequence played a big part. Gainesville wasted little time in getting an early goal as Pedro Santos lofted a long blast from just inside the midfield line that found the net over the outstretched arms of Cambridge keeper Nic Sides for a 1-0 lead just 13 seconds into the contest.

“They just play hard but we have had a lot of injuries,” he said. “I think both teams were definitely tired but that also was because (Cambridge) just pushed the ball the entire match. We scored so early sometimes that can be a bad thing.

“You want to play back since you have the lead but 79 minutes is a long time to do that. Cambridge just pushed so much after that.”

Gainesville would not have another highlight until the waning seconds of the half.

Cambridge controlled most everything in between generating eight scoring chances as the Bears pushed forward to get the equalizer. But the Red Elephants defense, behind Jorge Vasquez, was up to the challenge each time.

Bautista was strong making five saves, including a huge punch-out in the 20th minute off a Cambridge free kick.

The Bears first opportunity came in the 10th minute when Bautista was forced to direct a shot over the crossbar on a long floating blast similar to Santos’s goal to begin the match.

In the 13th minute, the Bears’ Austen Carranza had a nice run through traffic into the box but Bautista was able to snare his soft shot.

The Bears continued to put the pressure on forcing several Gainesville miscues in the midfield to generate shots in the 22nd, 23rd, and 26th minutes. They just missed on a header in the 38th minute off a corner.

The Red Elephants got some late magic as a run by Armando Hernandez and pass to Santos in the box resulted in a Cambridge foul and Gainesville penalty kick with just 5 seconds left in the half.

Santos buried the shot past a diving Sides for a 2-0 lead at intermission.

The Bears continued to press the action in the second half and finally broke through the Gainesville defense. Omar Dhriff scored twice in a 44-second span, the first on a whirling bicycle kick for a goal just inside the left post in the 56th minute, the second on a PK in the 57th minute.

Both teams had chances over the final 20 minutes generating a pair of corners each. Gainesville had two free kicks inside 25-yards but a Vasquez shot and an Armando Hernandez shot both sailed just over the crossbar. The Bears had a shot inside the box in the final two minutes but Bautista again denied them.

Gainesville nearly scored midway through the 15-minute overtime but a Santos shot was stopped by Sides. The Bears countered off that shot to get inside the Gainesville box but Vasquez made a beautiful sliding stop to keep the game tied. With just 4:30 left, Bautista again made a big punch-out save and then snared the rebound to keep it tied.

In the PK phase, Bautista set the tone stopping the initial shot by the Bears’ Christian Guzman. Aram Lara buried the opening shot for Gainesville but Sides answered Bautista by snuffing out an attempt by Hernandez as they were tied 1-1 after the first two rounds. Both teams converted in Round 3 and Jose Aguilera gave the Red Elephants a 3-2 lead in the PKs. 

Bautista sealed the victory stopping the final two Cambridge attempts.

“It was just pure reaction really,” Bautista said. “My only thought was that I just wanted to win. Whatever it takes.”

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