By Jonathan Deal
If you’re looking for a favorite to reach the state soccer tournament, plan to attend tonight’s showdown between Athens and East Limestone. Each boys teams has advanced to the state tournament two of the last three years while Athens girls have reached state for seven consecutive seasons, winning it all for the first time last May.
The rival soccer teams meet for the first time this season at Golden Eagle Stadium, beginning with the boys game at 5 p.m.
As usual, it will be a high stakes affair with both teams seeking the early-season advantage in area standings.
In the opening game, East Limestone’s boys team seeks revenge from last season’s devastating loss to Athens in the second round of the playoffs.
After beating East Limestone 1-0 and 2-0 in regular season games, Athens was four minutes away from shutting out the Indians again until a frantic final ending saw three lead changes and the game go into overtime tied 2-2.
Athens won 3-2 in penalty kicks to advance to the state semifinals.
A combined 15 starters are gone from those teams, but the game promises to be just as intense with several key players still in the lineup.
“We’ve had some guys step up after we lost eight starters from last year,” said Athens head coach Ron Oakley. “It’s been a rebuilding year, but I think everybody is playing pretty well right now.”
For Athens, goalkeeper Dean Bunnell leads a solid defense that will look to corral East Limestone forward Dilan Sayer.
Sayer has been a goal-scoring machine for East over the past two seasons and this year is no different. Before Tuesday’s game at Cullman, Sayer had 21 goals in nine games. Entering tonight’s game, Sayer has accounted for 77 percent of the team’s scoring this season.
“I know they are always good,” said Oakley. “Dilan (Sayer) is one of the best players in the state regardless of classification. You can’t make mistake with him he will score and he will score multiple goals. They have some other players that can play. Either team can win and it could come down to the wire.”
The girls game promises to be just as good. Defending 5A champions Athens won all three meetings between the teams last season in convincing fashion.
After playing a tough early-season schedule, East Limestone hopes to be up to the challenge this season.
The girls game will kick off at approximately 7 p.m., following the boys game.