By Jeff Keeling
Science Hill’s senior-laden boys soccer team gave the home fans plenty to cheer for in a 5-0 win over AA/A power Greeneville on Senior Night April 30 at Kermit Tipton stadium. If things go well from here, though, the Toppers’ 11 seniors will play one last time on the home turf, with a return trip to the state tournament on the line.
The team did a good job of starting down that road this week, rolling David Crockett 8-0 in Tuesday’s district semifinal and riding a stout defense and two first-half goals from junior Lucas Altman to shut out Dobyns-Bennett 2-0 in the district championship Thursday at Tennessee High.
“I was handed a pretty skilled and talented group of players,” first-year coach Dave Strickland said as the Toppers prepared for this week’s district tournament.
“(Former coach) Brandon Kind developed a lot of these kids from the time they were 10 and 11, and I’m kind of reaping the benefits of his investment in them.”
Against a Greeneville team that will be seeking its fifth consecutive state tournament berth, the Toppers executed according to Strickland’s emphasis on possession and solid defense. That approach, layered onto the team’s already explosive offensive power, has resulted in a run of shutouts in April that’s been interrupted only by a 1-0 loss at Hardin Valley April 9.
“We knew we had a lot of attacking power in our team,” Strickland said of the group he inherited, which made a state semifinal run last year. “We have some gifted technical players that are very creative.”
This season, Strickland has worked on getting his squad to defend in groups – of twos and fours, on up to the entire 11 on the field, and on maintaining possession of the ball.
“It’s progressed really well,” he said. “We’re more and more solid, where there’s less and less opportunities for the other team to score.”
The possession game, he added, “breaks down the other team’s shape of play,” and often leads to multiple second-half chances. “When you make a team have to chase the ball, you get into the 50th or 60th minute they start breaking down mentally, and that’s where you start exposing a team.”
That is precisely what the Toppers achieved against Greeneville. After Lucas Altman and senior defender John Lucchesi scored in the first half – with one of the goals a bit fluky – Science Hill executed a dominant stretch between six and 15 minutes into the second half. Senior Jhordan Santana ran up on a short, crossing pass on the ground and put it in from just in front of the net for a 3-0 lead. Four minutes later, sophomore Rob McDermott ran down a beautiful low through ball and scored from about 12 yards out. Altman, the team’s leading scorer and a junior, finished the barrage just a few minutes later.
Along with Altman and Santana, Strickland said seniors John Huffman and Miller Franklin, along with sophomore wing Elliott Fry, have been key offensive cogs this season. Lucchesi, who recently signed to play soccer at East Tennessee State University, anchors the defense along with senior goaltender Grayson Garland.
Those 11 seniors are itching to return to state, where they fell to Franklin 3-0 in the semifinals last year. The team is 14-3-1 this year.
The Toppers could have a shot at Hardin Valley, whom they beat to advance to state last year, should they take care of business at district and regionals. At regionals, the Toppers will face either Morristown West or Sevier County in the semifinal. Strickland said placing at least second in regionals would guarantee a sectional game.
He said in addition to Hardin Valley, the other top teams from the Knoxville section include Bearden, Oak Ridge and Farragut.A win at regionals would leave Science Hill hosting a sectional game May 16, or traveling if they finished second at regionals.
“As a team, the further along we go in the postseason the better we have to execute on both sides of the ball,” Strickland said. “We have expectations to be back down at the state tournament competing for the title. We have the quality to do that.”