“We have competed in the same tournament for three consecutive years. In 2015, we lost all three games. Last year, we went 1-2. This year we won a championship. It gives the kids a chance to see tangible improvement in our team and program,” said Filip Lander, head coach of the Dragons.
In game one, the Dragons beat East Robertson by a score of 3-0. The game was tied at halftime. The second half started with a Dylan Williams goal off a Matt Tolson assist. Tolson brought the ball down the right wing and served it in to Willaims who flicked it past a defender and finished in the top corner of the net.
Next up, freshman Noah Grumbach scored his first career goal for the Dragons minutes after seeing his first action of the game. Midfielder Daniel McGuffin served a sizzling ball past the back line and Noah ran on and slotted it past the keeper.
To end the game, senior Evan Pyles sealed it when the Indians goalkeeper blocked a Dylan Williams shot and it rebounded back out. Pyles ran past a defender and drilled it home. Jordan Nichols and Nick Meadows combined for the shutout, with help from defenders Russell Winchester, Jake Winter, and Nick Sellers.
“It was a great confidence boost to start the tournament. East Robertson has an experienced offense, but our defense did a fantastic job with their attack. They are coming off a 10-win season and had already scored 14 goals in four games before our game. Much credit to midfielders like Jaxon Edwards, McGuffin, Hamza Asad, Tolson, Dylan Joy, and Andrew Lowe for really helping the back line,” said Leander.
In game two, Clinton tied Maryville Christian, 3-3.
This was the best game of the tournament. Clinton had lost two consecutive games to the soccer-strong school from Blount County, including a tough 5-3 loss last year at Clinton. The Eagles started the game on fire. They scored two goals to take a commanding 2-0 lead. Things were starting to look bleak for the Dragons. That’s when Edwin Rivera and Dylan Williams took charge to end the half. The two began attacking the left wing and got in on goal several times.
Moments before halftime, it paid off, as Rivera found Williams with a quick wall pass and the senior All-District player buried it.
“It was a excellent work by those two and it got us back in the game. It was so crucial that we got one back before halftime. It changed everything because now we were excited going into the second half,” said Leander.
The Dragons found much needed energy and began pressuring the Eagles goal. Fifteen minutes in, it looked liked Rivera had tied it up when he smashed home a shot on a breakaway, but the goal was negated after the junior was flagged for being offsides on the play.
The correct, but very close close fired up the Dragons even more, as they continued their surge forward. Finally, Williams took a perfectly played ball from Grumbach and dribbled the goalkeeper before tapping it home.
“Dylan showed incredible composure. It was an intense, physical game and he was so calm when he beat the keeper. That is the definition of experience and senior leadership,” Leander said.
Maryville Christian then went on the offensive. The Eagles begin relentlessly attacking the Dragon goal and it took less than five minutes to regain the lead.
With the time ticking down, the Dragons needed a miracle. And they got one. In the waning moments of the game, Williams served a ball into the box. Rivera sneaked past two bigger defenders and headed the ball past the goalkeeper to again even the score. Pandemonium reigned as the Dragons once again found themselves alive in the tournament.
“That was amazing. I don’t know how Edwin got free, but he found a way. That was one of those moments when you think maybe it is meant to be for your team,” an elated Leander said.
The Dragons held on for the tie and were number one in the tournament standings going into the final game.
“Maryville Christian was a great game for us, because we were losing and losing big, and we came back from the jaws of death. Instead of giving up — especially because it was hot and humid — the kids fought back and gave everything they had. Then when we faced adversity a second time — when they took the lead again — we still refused to quit. Imagine a boxer who gets pummeled but refuses to go down. That was us,” Leander said.
Going into the final game, the Dragons were leading the standings on a two-goal tiebreaker. A win by three goals or more would ensure a championship. Facing a tough Madison County, Ala. team, the task looked daunting. The Tigers could win the title with a win and a Maryville Christian tie or loss.
“Going into the game, everyone was telling us how fast Madison County was. Speed, speed, speed. Honestly, we were not even thinking about scoring this or that many goals; we just wanted to win. For both of us, it was a championship game,” the coach said.
The game started with the two teams trading punches. Rivera scored first, putting Clinton up by a goal. Williams beat several defenders off the dribble, before sliding a ball past the back line. Rivera drove it home for the lead. The Tigers roared back quickly, ripping a long shot into the Dragon net to level the game.
Instead of folding, the Dragons came right back swinging. Rivera was on fire. The lightening quick junior took a Nick Sellers pass and smashed it past an athletic Madison County keeper.
“Edwin has been outstanding for us. His play in the last two games has been at times surreal,” Leander said.
Clinton was far from done. Moments before halftime, Tristan Tucker made the biggest play of his Dragon career. He stripped the ball from a Tiger defender and served it to Williams who drilled it for a 3-1 lead.
“That was a backbreaker. I was so proud of Tristan for coming through at a huge time for our program. Going into halftime we were in a great position to win,” said Leander.
The second half started well for the Dragons. Senior Tyler Csurny, limited due to an ankle injury, made the most of his short shift to open the half. Rivera again beat the back line, but instead of shooting, he sent a cross to Csurny who finished for the lead. To close out the game, freshman Grumbach again made an impact on a game. Sellers found a streaking Grumbach who raced past the Madison County back line to collect a through ball and finished it back post.
“Noah Grumbach had an impact on every game in the tournament. He is becoming a super sub for us — as a freshman,” said his coach.
“A huge key to our success this weekend was the senior leadership we got from guys like Jaxon Edwards, Russell Winchester, and Nick Sellers. They don’t appear on the stat sheet much, but they do so many great things for our team.”
“Winning a tournament is special for our program. Hopefully this experience will create some lifelong memories for these kids. They deserve success, they have worked hard,” Leander said.