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East Bladen Soccer Plays With Best in State

East Bladen’s Eagles battled top-seeded Thomasville Ledford to the wire Wednesday night in the Class 2A Eastern playoffs, and in the process proved that they could play with anyone in the state.

“Our guys gave it everything they had,” said East Bladen Coach Jay Raynor. “We kept their leading player (Daniel Anani) off the score sheet and frustrated them. Speaks volumes for my guys to be able to go toe to toe with the #1 seed in the East and #2 team in the state.”

Ledford scored first off of a hard shot that deflected off of an Eagle defender into the net. Four minutes later East Bladen answered as senior Gabe Barber scored from inside the box off of a feed from junior Will Hester.

In the 45th minute, Ledford’s Jeffrey Romero got loose and scored the go ahead goal. “We had him on his left foot and stopped,” said Raynor. “Tried to make a play and he beat us and put a shot on goal with his right foot that found the back of the net.”

The Eagles had several chances to tie. With under 4 minutes left, Barber had a long throw that bounced around and looked to have crossed the line but was ruled to not have been completely across the line.

“With 15 seconds to go we earned a free kick from 30 or so yards out,” said Raynor. “Gabe put it on frame and had several chances at the rebound before the final whistle was blown.”

Raynor shared, “Ledford had an excellent game plan that pinned our wingers back and took space away for Gabe. Our plan was to attack their backline with diagonal balls so we could get in behind and dominate play in the flanks.”

The strategy helped Ledford out shoot the Eagles 15-13 (10-6 in second half). “With Ledford pinning us back we weren’t able to adhere to our game plan as often as we wanted, but when we did, we generated dangerous looks and set pieces,” noted Raynor. “Those chances were just not as prevalent as we thought they would be.”

Raynor praised the play of his backline defense against Ledford. “Jay McKoy, Freddy (Wooten), and Chase (Starkloff) did an excellent job and dominated in the back. Jacob (Priest) was outstanding in goal. He made several huge saves in the last 10 minutes and showed exactly how talented he is. Arguably one of the top keepers in our region.”

“Gabe and Jake (Evans) had outstanding games,” said Raynor. Barber led the Eagles on the season with 24 goals and finished with 22 assists. Evans, another senior,  contributed 22 assists and scored 9 goals.

Raynor felt that his teams was a huge underdog against Ledford. “On paper and other media outlets, we shouldn’t even be able to compete with a team like that. That game, even though it wasn’t the result we wanted, is a reflection of our kids here at East Bladen and the culture they have established. They work hard and are committed. They never back down from challenge.”

“My guys made history and set the bar high as they always have,” continued Raynor. “We won our third straight conference championship, advanced to the 3rd round, 17 straight wins, and owned the lowest goal against average that we have ever had at .530 goals a game.

The Eagle seniors won 41 of 42 Three Rivers Conference games over the last 3 seasons. Their overall record was 56-8-3 from 2017-2019.  “I am going to miss our seniors and all the time that they have given to our program,” concluded Raynor.  The standards they have set and the culture they have established will live on and better our program for the years to come”

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