Immediately after freshman midfielder Maroun Sassine’s header found the back of the net, a bit of dread set in for Pinecrest Academy. The Paladins led No. 4-ranked Fellowship Christian two-nil, ostensibly a comfortable cushion. Instead, déjà vu set in.
In the back of Pinecrest’s minds was March 11, the two teams’ previous meeting in what has become the Paladins’ most pivotal moment of the season. Pinecrest led two-nil that game only to unravel and eventually lose.
So here were the Paladins, up two-nil again.
“That was a terrifying lead,” junior Stephane Rivard said. “I would have rather been up 1-0 all game than get that 2-0 lead. It was scary.”
Instead, Pinecrest put on a frightening display of offensive execution to outlast Fellowship for a 6-3 victory Tuesday in a crucial Region 6-A match at home.
The win tied Fellowship (6-3-1, 4-1-0) and Pinecrest (10-2-0, 4-1-0) for first place in the region, but the Paladins earned the tiebreaker by virtue of holding the advantage in scoring margin.
Pinecrest is now in position to win the school’s first region championship in any sport since joining the Georgia High School Association in 2009 with two region games remaining against Mt. Pisgah and King’s Ridge.
“It would be a big step for the program,” Pinecrest coach Chris Kane said. “And to get the No. 1 seed in the state tournament would be huge.”
Even more, the win was validation for all the progress the Paladins feel they’ve made since that 3-2 loss to Fellowship on March 11.
“Last time it was a fluke,” junior Logan Hamilton said. “We came together as a team this game.”
Indeed, the Paladins had won five straight games and outscored opponents 30-5 much in part to the lessons they took away from that devastating loss to Fellowship.
Rivard said the glaring defect Pinecrest discovered that night was its inability to finish on set pieces. And so the Paladins fittingly got the scoring started on a long cross from Rivard that Hamilton headed past Fellowship’s goalkeeper for a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute.
The set pieces kept coming from Pinecrest. Sassine headed in a corner kick from Rico Victoria in the 22nd minute, Lucas Perez finished a cross from Rivard in the 53rd minute and Hamilton one-timed a long throw-in from Rivard in the 56th minute.
“We’ve started finishing on set pieces, corners,” Rivard said. “Got two headers in the game, a bunch of great shots that we managed to keep under the bar.”
Pinecrest was not flawless. Fellowship managed to cut into the Paladins’ lead in the second half – to 3-1, then 4-2, then 5-3, each one a slight reminder of March 11.
But Pinecrest never took long to respond. When Fellowship cut the lead to 4-2, the Paladins took advantage less than nine minutes later of a yellow card on Fellowship’s goalkeeper on a foul in the box. Michael Houlihan scored on the penalty kick to make it 5-2.
And when Fellowship made it 5-3 in the 74th minute, it took Rivard just 30 seconds to answer with a laser shot from 30 yards out that soared over Fellowship’s diving goalkeeper.
“Our kids never quit,” Kane said. “I don’t think doubt every crept into their mind, like, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ Credit them. They were fantastic. … I can’t say enough about the guys. It was a total team effort.”