By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County High School soccer team’s history making season came to an end last week.
After winning the District 1-A/AA championship the week before, the Blue Devils (12-7-1), in only their second year as a program, defeated Cumberland Gap, 2-0, in the semifinals of the Region 1-A/AA tournament on Tuesday, May 16, in Erwin.
“That was a fun game for us to get to play,” head coach Justin Ciralsky told The Erwin Record.
The Blue Devils took control of the game in the first half, thanks to a first-half goal by senior Sam Murillo.
“We scored pretty early, so going into halftime we were pretty confident,” Ciralsky said. “We were able to shut down their better players, then the second goal helped seal the deal.”
Murillo scored the Blue Devils’ next goal during the second half.
Ciralsky praised the play of senior Christian Leon and sophomore Juan Ramirez in the game.
“Christian and Juan had been playing very well the previous three or four games,” he said. “We had heard they had a couple of really strong players and our guys were able to shut them down and keep them from hurting us. This opened up our forwards and midfielders to move up and try to get goals.”
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The victory over Cumberland Gap sent the Blue Devils to the region championship game where they faced Greeneville on Thursday, May 18, in Erwin. The win also sent the Blue Devils to the substate round where they faced Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK) – the reigning state champions – on Saturday, May 20, in Knoxville.
Against Greeneville the Blue Devils did not turn in the performance they needed to defeat the reigning region champs.
“You could tell our boys were a little timid,” Ciralsky said of the Greeneville game. “You could tell some of them were distracted by graduation. We didn’t play terrible, but we played scared, almost like we didn’t know what to expect.
“Greeneville is a good team and they move the ball very well. Obviously, we wanted to walk out of there with a win, but I think a lot of little distractions, mixed with playing a team of that level led to our defeat.”
Greeneville scored near the midpoint of the first half.
“We played pretty well after they scored the first goal,” Ciralsky said.
It was the Green Devils second goal, which came in the second half, that deflated the Blue Devils.
“The second goal is the one that was more morally defeating because we had been playing well. We had been moving the ball and had corrected things we hadn’t been doing in the first half.”
The loss to Greeneville sent UCHS to CAK for the do-or-die substate game on Saturday where the reigning state champions took control of the game in the first half and a 3-0 lead into halftime.
“We went in knowing that we were the underdog,” Ciralsky. “… We told the guys before they game that they needed to leave the field knowing that they did everything in their power to be successful and to play an excellent game. Honestly, the score doesn’t reflect how well we played. … The timidness we played with against Greeneville was not there.”
Despite trailing early in the game, UCHS kept fighting.
“They still attacked the goal and they still moved the ball,” Ciralsky said. “They did everything we asked them to do.”
Trailing 3-0 at the half, the Blue Devils didn’t quit.
“We came out and played well in the second half,” Ciralsky said. “I was very pleased with our effort.”
CAK added another goal late in the game to win 4-0 and advance to the state tournament.
The loss to CAK was the final game as a Blue Devil for the team’s eight seniors – RJ Phillips, Carlos Delgado, Christian Leon, Samuel Murillo, Jose Ortiz, Derek Andrade, Donnie Metcalf, and Gerardo Batrez.
“These guys are irreplaceable,” Ciralsky said. “Sam, Christian and Jose – their love and passion for the game really impacted other players.”
The future is bright for the Blue Devils, though.
“After the CAK game we talked about how this is just the foundation of what we want to build on,” Ciralsky said. “I let our leaders – Sam and Christian – talk to the boys. They were encouraging them and reminding them that this season wasn’t a fluke. We set the standards high for what we want to attain for the years to come. … We are excited to build on this season going forward.”
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Ciralsky also expressed his appreciation to the fans who supported the Blue Devil soccer team this season.
“One of the things we focused on this season was the ‘Stand As One’ phrase we said before and after every game,” Ciralsky said. “I think the community is starting to see that we are not just playing for ourselves, or even the high school – we are playing for our community. That was something that was evident by all the people who came to our games last week.”
Following the win over Cumberland Gap, the Blue Devil players and coach urged fans to join them on the field – where a celebration ensued.
“Our boys enjoyed celebrating that win with the community,” Ciralsky said. “It was a great feeling.”
Throughout the 2017 season, the Blue Devils felt the support of the community, for which they are very appreciative, according to their head coach.
“Thank you so much to everyone who came out and supported,” Ciralsky said. “It was such an encouraging thing. To see the support the community had for those boys just reinforced what we were teaching them about life on the field and off. We just want to thank everyone who came out to the games and supported us – it was the heartbeat to what we are playing for.”