By Jonathan Deal
In a battle of top five teams, No. 1 Athens will host No. 5 East Limestone at 4 p.m. Saturday for a chance to advance to the state tournament in Huntsville. It’s the third meeting between the teams this season.
Athens beat its biggest rival 1-0 at East in March and won the return game 2-0 at Athens two weeks ago. If the Indians are to be successful Saturday, they will have to do something that few teams have been able to this season against Athens: Score.
The Golden Eagles have allowed six goals in 21 games for a .28 goals against average this season. The key to Athens defense has been the center back pairing of Hunter Brown and Andrew McNutt.
Brown is a three-year starter and serves as one of the team’s captains. The senior has the speed to match East Limestone’s biggest weapon in forward Dilan Sayer.
“Their center-defender (Hunter Brown) is very physical and very fast. He matches up well with Dilan (Sayer),” East Limestone coach Danny McConnell said. “They’ve been kind of balancing each other out.”
Sayer is one of the most proficient goal-scorers in the state with 28 this season. As a freshman last season, Sayer poured in more than 30.
“At the beginning of the year, people started playing him really physical,” McConnell said. “He’s had more attention this year. He definitely knows he’s going to be the target. He’s done very well with that.”
Athens has a dynamic combination of its own in Christopher Gregory and Ramon Jurado. Last week against Southside, the pair scored four of the first five goals in an 8-0 trouncing.
Jurado scored the second goal in Athens’ last win against East. The other two goals came from Devn Hooie corner kicks. Hooie, along with fellow senior Wynn Baker, form a dynamic partnership as the team’s center midfielders. In total, there are eight senior starters for Athens.
East Limestone also has its fair share of senior starters. Led by center back Chris Kenney, the Indians will have six seniors in the starting lineup Saturday.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys who have played against Athens five or
six times,” said McConnell. “Athens are good at keeping possession. You don’t get that many chances against them. It’s all about who can handle their emotions.”
East advanced to the quarterfinals after winning at No. 4 Fort Payne 2-0 Tuesday. Kenney and Sayer scored the goals in that game to send East into the second round.
“I sort of expected East to beat Fort Payne because they are an outstanding team,” Athens head coach Ron Oakley said. “They will come in very capable of being in the Final Four.”
The teams met in this exact situation two years ago after both won first-round playoff matches. Athens and East split games during the regular season that year and met in the second round at Athens for a chance at the Final Four.
East Limestone won that game 5-4 to advance to the program’s first state tournament.
The game likely won’t produce nine goals, but should be one of the area’s best-ever soccer games considering the high stakes and quality of players on the field.
Kickoff from Athens is at 4 p.m. Saturday.