WACO — When the final buzzer sounded, Clayton Cole dropped to his knees and buried his head in his hands on the Waco University turf.
It was the closest to the ground many of the Salado Eagles could get as Nacogdoches took to the air for much of the game, preferring to pass by way of headers rather than with their feet.
That game plan didn’t work in the Eagles’ favor as the District 35-4A champion Dragons sent Salado home Thursday with a 1-0 loss in their Region 3-4A area round playoff game at Waco University High School.
“I feel like we’re a real athletic team, and when that ball stays in the air, we can’t do what we need to do on the ground,” Cole said. “I think it being in the air so much made a really big difference.”
Nacogdoches sophomore Manuel Hernandez scored the game’s lone goal with 1:30 to spare in the first half after teammate Rudy Fuentes played the ball to him about 15 feet in front of the net and Hernandez sent a floater that arched over Salado goalie Mason Bird into the upper left-hand corner of the net for the score. Bird finished with 12 saves as the Dragons kept him busy.
“The scouting report we got on them (said) they’d be good in the air, that they were good with winning balls out of the air with their heads,” Salado head coach Michael Goos said. “So we knew that, but I don’t think we played the way we wanted to — we wanted to play a little more to the outsides than we did, and that kind of hurt us.”
Because of the constant heading of the ball, Salado (16-7-3) struggled just to get it past midfield, as the Dragons were in the proper position to clear the ball back over toward the Eagles’ goal at every opportunity — usually with their heads.
“We definitely weren’t used to be playing in-the-air headers, they were phenomenal with their heads,” Salado senior center-midfielder Josh Oyler said. “As it was on the field today, it was hard for us to adapt to.”
In the second half alone, Nacogdoches (14-3-1) outshot Salado 8-1, with the Eagles picking up the pace within the final 10 minutes but struggling just to get the ball past midfield without a Dragons player getting a head on it and sending it right back.
In fact, the Eagles only took two shots on goal the entire game, both by junior midfielder Chase Crenwelge, who’s free-kick opportunity in the 24th minute sailed right into the hands of Dragons keeper Isaac Garcia.
Goos credited fatigue and a slow start for the Eagles’ inability to pressure Nacogdoches offensively.
“We just seemed tired, and especially that first half, we just came out dead and it almost seemed like we had no passion or no emotion there,” Goos said. “And in a game this big, you really have to play for 80 minutes.”
Cole, a junior defender who was tasked with fighting for position with the Dragons forwards trying to receive the lofting through-headers, agreed.
“Honestly, I think maybe we didn’t have the right mindset going in,” Cole said. “But in that second half, I couldn’t ask any more of the guys. We gave it all our, I know we did.”
It was the second straight area-round playoff exit for the second-year Salado soccer program.
But for five Eagles, Thursday was their last game in a Salado uniform.
“The only thing I’ve ever wanted from Salado was to play soccer at a high school level, and I’m really glad I got to play with the guys that I did,” Oyler said.
Belton 3, Cedar Hill 1 — At Cedar Hill, Timothy Williams scored a hat trick as the Belton boys soccer team advanced to the area round of the Class 5A state playoffs with a 3-1 bi-district victory over Cedar Hill on Thursday night at Longhorn Stadium.
Williams found the back of the net in the 32nd minute on an assist by Angel Hernandez, had an unassisted goal in the 39th minute, then scored in the 10th minute of the second half on an assist from Scott Carnly.
“It was a hard, physical-type game,” Belton coach Tarcisio Mosnia said. “It took us a while to get going. That may have had to do with the travel and the fact that it was pretty windy.”
The District 8-5A champion Tigers (18-2-4) outshot Cedar Hill 13-5. Belton goalkeeper Carlo Mosnia made four saves.
The Tigers face Flower Mound Marcus or Hurst Bell in the area round next week.