TAMPA – Sickles earned a hard fought 2-1 victory against rival Gaither on Tuesday night, clinching the No.1 seed for the Class 5A-District 9 tournament in the process in the first victory for the Gryphons seniors against the Cowboys.
The high-paced game provided many opportunities, but it was the long throw-ins by both sides that led to goals, the game-winner coming in the 57th minute as a throw-in from the left side went into the Gaither 6-yard box. The Cowboys were unable to clear the danger, and in the ensuing scramble the ball ended up in the net.
The lack of style points on what proved to be the game-winning goal didn’t matter to the Gryphons, who had to fend off a pair of late chances to preserve their win. Sickles goalkeeper Brandon Stout first came off his line to block a shot by Josh Santos, and Gaither’s Zach Wheeler shot wide just before the final whistle.
The Gryphons bench streamed onto the field in celebration at the final whistle after finally defeating their biggest rival.
“It’s a huge momentum boost,” Sickles defender Eric Krukar said. “There was a big burden on our backs this season and for the past four years, and we finally overcame it. It’s a huge burden lifted off our shoulders.”
The game was everything you would expect from a heated district and area rivalry, with both sides having half-chances early in the game to open the scoring. Gaither’s Ryan Foerstner went close to opening the scoring, but was unable to control a flick with the outside of his right boot, sending it over the crossbar off a long throw-in by David Barrientos. Sickles also had a good opportunity when a raking ball across the field found Matt Brown on the right, but he shot over from just inside the penalty area.
Gaither then could have taken the lead five minutes before halftime, Jordan See turning his defender well before putting a low ball into the center of the penalty area to Justin Santos, but Santos could only lift his shot over the bar from eight yards out.
Sickles took advantage of the reprieve a minute later as a long throw-in from the left was flicked on at the near post and Krukar poked his shot in from close range. Long throw-ins and corners have been a major part of Sickles’ attack this season, something Krukar said comes from the coaching and work the side does in practice.
“It’s really coaching,” Krukar said. “We execute the plays our coaches tell us to run in practice, and we execute it on the field.”
The Cowboys tied the game in the 53rd minute, a long throw from the right by Barrientos going to the top of the Gryphons’ 6-yard box. A Sickles defender tried to flick the ball away to safety, but instead saw it go into the far side of the net.
That didn’t appear to deter the Gryphons, who continued to push forward even after retaking the lead four minutes later. Gaither goalkeeper John Nardozzi had to make an excellent double-save to keep the score 2-1 with just under 10 minutes to go, and Joey Ltief shot wide with just under five minute left, slamming the ground with his hand after failing to hit the target.
The missed opportunities didn’t come back to haunt the Gryphons, though, as they remained perfect in district play.
“It’s one of those game that was very well played on both sides,” Sickles coach Tony Calvo said. “Gaither has always had a great program, but I think the boys, this is a very good win for them.”
Gaither had held a 4-0-1 mark in the past three season against Sickles, but were without starters Charlie Delmar and Steffan Seibel-Cortopassi which led to a lack of control in the center of midfield. The Cowboys will need to defeat Freedom on Friday night to assure themselves of the No.2 seed in the district. Cowboys captain See said that the Gryphons’ victory will only intensify the rivalry should the two sides meet again in the district tournament.
“It’s definitely feeds the fire that we’re going to want this a lot more,” See said. “Now that they did beat us, we want to give it back the next time we play them.”