By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Deny and conquer.
That strategy, employed by visiting Southwest Virginia Home School's boys soccer team, was easy enough for Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy's Austin Stover to surmise on Tuesday. The Conquerors hoped to upset the homestanding Patriots by packing its entire lineup into the penalty area, designed to deny a goal while keeping an eye on a counter-attack opportunity.
It worked, for a while, before SVCA (19-5-2) broke through midway through the first half and eventually tallied two more goals for a 3-0 victory in the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) state quarterfinal game. The win moves the Patriots into Friday's state semifinals against the Westover/Grace Christian winner in Lynchburg. Game time is 2:30 p.m. at Timberlake Christian School.
Tuesday's victory wasn't a surprise for the Patriots, fresh off winning the VACA North Region championship, but it didn't come easy against the Conquerors.
"It's definitely frustrating for a striker because what [SVCA coach Dustin Wheelock] was trying to get me to do was to be patient, just wait at the very end and kind of have those through balls where we had just the right time to pass a through ball," Stover said. "It was frustrating for me because I'm used to playing up and back, up and back to where I'm moving so much to having to just stand there and wait for that perfect ball."
The Patriots kept trying to find Stover with that perfect ball, but instead got on the scoreboard with their 10th shot when Peter Harrison delivered a pinpoint cross to Tyler Fincham inside the penalty area. Fincham, on the left side of the box, sliced a shot past Conquerors goalkeeper Hayden Burch to break the scoreless deadlock in the 26th minute.
The assist was the latest big play by Harrison, who tallied a hat trick in the Patriots' 4-0 win over Fresta Valley in Saturday's North Region championship.
"Peter seems to really, really show his skill in big games," Wheelock said.
Burch, the Conquerors' lone senior, was making his first start at keeper as coach Mike Sanders decided to shift his best athlete from defense to between the posts. Burch did what he could, recording nine saves in the first half and 11 overall, but SVCA got an insurance goal just before halftime when William Steele fed Tristan Baker for an open shot in front of the box.
"We talked a lot about being patient, move the ball quickly, don't hold it long, just get it moving quickly and look for gaps," Wheelock said. "When you put that many people in front of the goal, it just takes some patience and persistence."
Sanders said Baker's goal was "a real heart-breaker" for the Conquerors.
"We knew we had to just kind of shut them down and look for the quick strike," Sanders said. "Everything went well -- I think it was 26 minutes before they scored their first goal, so that went well. We saw them just pulling up, being really aggressive, and we were just hoping to get behind them. We did a few times. We just needed to close out some opportunities."
There weren't many chances for the Conquerors (5-8), who were held to two shots in the first half and eight overall. SVCA goalkeeper Tanner Foster did get some work in the second half, stopping four shots including a pair of dangerous free kicks by the Conquerors' Richard Beard.
Stover finally got his own score in the second half, dashing along the back line for a run on the goal, Stover beat a pair of defenders, then slipped past the onrushing Burch before flicking in an unassisted goal in the 50th minute.
"Austin's been phenomenal for us," Wheelock said. "His touch on the ball is very good and he has the capability of beating several people off the dribble."
Despite the loss, Sanders said his team was in good spirits after hanging with the Patriots.
"We knew what class of team we were going against, so we came with what we had and put out a good effort," Sanders said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>