Tide downs Gate City to reach soccer final four

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Galax blanked the Blue Devils 2-0, will face George Mason in Group A semis.

UPDATE: The VHSL has postponed all Group A and Group AA baseball, softball and soccer semifinals and finals due to inclement weather. Semifinals will now be played Saturday and the finals on Sunday. The Group A boys' and girls' soccer semifinals will now be at Salem High School (NOT the Civic Center complex), with the finals to be played at R.U.


BRISTOL –– Gate City defender Joey Canter collapsed in agony Tuesday after watching Galax striker Andres Medina’s 17th-minute rip dip just under the crossbar and nestle into the upper right corner of the net.

Considering how early in the match the goal came, Canter’s reaction at first glance appeared a bit over the top.

Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, however, the anguish displayed by Canter was spot on.

With its precision passing attack, Galax proved too tough to handle playing with the lead as the Maroon Tide picked up a 2-0 victory to end Gate City’s season in the Virginia High School League Group A state quarterfinals Tuesday at Sugar Hollow Park.

“We knew if we could come out and get a goal early we could kind of shut them down, but they’re fast and a good team,” said Gate City coach Eric Baker. “We played a real good team.”

Galax coach Troy Barkley, meanwhile, was thrilled to see his bunch grab its early advantage.

“It tends to calm the boys down,” Barkley said. “At the beginning of the year, we had a hard time getting going.”

Barkley said Galax was able to execute its game plan well on the wide field.

“Just trying to possess the ball and use the space,” he said when asked about his approach. “When you come to the state tournament the fields are so much bigger than what everybody’s used to playing on because we play on football fields.”

Despite having to chase Galax (21-1) all over the field after falling behind, Gate City (18-1) did have its chances for an equalizer.

Caleb Herron broke free late in the first half, but he wasn’t able to regain his balance before shooting and his attempt went wide. Superb forward Neth Gardner also had a few of his usual moments of individual brilliance, but they came far away from the goal as he struggled to create many true scoring opportunities.

Blue Devils goalkeeper Micah Bledsoe kept things close with 15 saves and Canter cleared a shot off the goal line late in the match, but Galax’s second goal by Junior Espinosa with 14:52 remaining squashed Gate City’s hopes for a comeback.

Espinosa’s goal came off a perfect cross from Medina, a reversal of Galax’s first scoring strike when Espinosa recorded the assist.

“They’ve both been starters for about three years and they play indoor together and club team,” Barkley said. “They pretty much know where they are.”

Tuesday’s matchup was the third straight time Gate City and Galax met in the state quarterfinals. Galax won 2-1 in 2011, but the Blue Devils prevailed 4-1 last year for their first state tournament win in program history.

Baker said the entire Galax team proved a tough challenge this time around.

“We knew they had speed,” he said. “We knew all 11 guys they had on the field could play.”

While Gate City once again dominated Region D, Baker said he hopes to have more flexibility in the schedule next year to beef up its regular-season competition.

“We’ve just got to play some better teams throughout the year,” he said.

That’s not the case for Galax, which came into the state tournament ready to go.

“We’re well-seasoned, had some tough games, almost battle-tested,” Barkley said. “We’ve kind of geared our whole season toward this week.”

Galax will face final four regular George Mason in the state semifinals Saturday at Salem High School, with a start scheduled for noon. The Mustangs have reached the state championship match seven times and won five titles in the 14 years the VHSL has conducted a Group A tournament. Galax is no stranger to the final four itself but will seek its first semifinal win since topping Goochland in 2008.

––Bristol Herald-Courier