BAILEY – Southern Nash was 40 minutes away from joining a club whose membership it didn’t want: Another talented Firebirds team that was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The Firebirds had 40 minutes to change that and advance to the second round, like the past two Southern Nash boys’ teams could not, but this team didn’t even need 10 minutes.
Southern Nash’s two goals in the first eight minutes of the second half proved to be the decisive marks in a physical 2-1 victory against Havelock on Wednesday at Southern Nash High School.
“I told them right before the half, ‘We didn’t work this hard for it to happen again,’” Southern Nash coach John Matthews said. “I reminded them before the game too: (playoffs losses to) Southern Lee (in 2010), Jacksonville last year. We didn’t want to be that team again.”
Southern Nash (16-4-1) defended Havelock’s numerous counterattacks in the first 15 minutes of the match, using calm touches and communication at the back to thwart the Rams’ attempts to score first.
When the defending slacked, though, the Rams (13-9-1) took advantage. A giveaway in the middle third allowed star Havelock midfielder Noah Kemble to slice the Firebirds’ defense, and his low drive to Southern Nash keeper Will Liles’ right gave the Rams a 1-0 edge in the 26th.
“We didn’t get back on it, and he put the ball right where it needed to be,” Matthews said. “I think that’s what woke us up and got us back in the game.”
Kemble almost doubled his total immediately after his first goal when Southern Nash again gave away the ball and allowed him a shot on goal, but his effort from the top of the 18-yard box went wide.
Liles was forced to make a point-blank save off a corner kick in the 38th minute, then Kemble created a breakaway two minutes later. Liles stopped the first shot, but Kemble chased down the rebound. Only center back Carlos Leon’s sliding block prevented another goal.
Matthews adjusted in the second half, moving midfielder Moises Gonzalez to the wide position and called for man marking on Kemble, after which the Firebirds dominated the final 40 minutes.
The Rams hardly came near the goal after, as Southern Nash outshot Havelock, 16-1, in the second half.
“I trust everybody on the back line,” right back Pablo Mier said. “Once we started man-marking No. 10 (Kemble), I think that’s what allowed us to control the game.”
A deflection in the box came to the feet of Gonzalez, who equalized in the 42nd minute.
The Firebirds earned some luck six minutes later when Miguel Salazar struck from outside the box, with the ball taking a deflection off a Havelock defender and fluttering past Havelock goalkeeper Patrick McKenna.
“That right there is how I knew it wasn’t going to be our day,” Havelock coach Jeff Harris said. “We had it defended perfectly, then it takes a deflection and there was nothing Patrick could have done about it. Just bad luck.”
Even Salazar admitted his good fortune.
“It was a little bit of luck,” he said. “It his back and just curled in.”
The game turned ugly in the final stages. Havelock took exception to Southern Nash’s physical play, and the Firebirds weren’t pleased with the Rams’ knocking Gonzalez to the ground.
The match officials did a poor job of controlling the game from the outset, and the play grew nastier as the game continued toward the final whistle. Havelock defender Adrian Young should have been carded for a tackle on Gonzalez, then Southern Nash striker Ben Liles should have earned a card for taking out Young on a 50-50 header as retaliation.
Justin Kilgore earned a yellow for pushing and then intentionally kicking Liles, though Liles went unpunished for kicking at Kilgore.
Havelock’s Peter Brown slammed the ball into Nilton Perez’s stomach before a throw in, then was carded moments later for an unfair challenge.
Despite the chippiness, Southern Nash earned the best revenge: It won. The Firebirds will play Satruday against the winner of Southern Wayne and South Brunswick.
“I think they saw we were controlling the game,” Mier said. “We just got in their heads.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.