ATLANTA, Ga. - Southeast Whitfield coach Jamison Griffin knew it was going to take the perfect storm for his third-ranked Raider soccer team to pull out a victory on the road against the No. 1-ranked team in the state, and he almost had it.
The Raiders held a lead for most of the first half against St. Pius X, but fouls, yellow cards, cramps and frustration became their undoing as the Lions claimed a 3-1 victory behind a raucous crowd to advance to the Class AAA state title game.
St. Pius X (19-0-1) will host second-ranked Woodward Academy, a 9-2 winner over ninth-ranked Cairo, in the state championship game Saturday at 7:30.
The physical matchup featured a lot of flared tempers which led to numerous near-fights, four yellow cards - three charged to Southeast Whitfield - and plenty of frustration from everybody on the Raider sideline.
"It's really tough to play our style of play when some of the stuff happening is going on," Griffin said. "If that's what it takes to win, then that's what it takes, but I will say that they have a lot of talented kids and a coach that can get them eager to win and hungry to score goals."
Osciel Fabela's goal about 11 minutes into the contest gave the Raiders the early lead. It was only the second time the Lions had trailed all season, but they didn't flinch and, at the 13:22 mark of the first half, got a goal when the Raiders were charged with a foul in the box.
Drew Morgan finished the penalty kick, and the two teams went into the halftime break tied up.
"We haven't been down much this year, but I think it spurned the guys on," St. Pius coach David O'Shea said. "We knew they would be difficult to break down because they were big in the back and would give us problems."
The Raiders, who at times lacked the crispness in their passes that they had sported all year long, started to possess the ball better in the second half, which caused some key chances for the team. Yet with 9:46 remaining, a misplayed ball by a Southeast defender led to a 1-on-1 opportunity for J.D. Manzo, who struck the ball past Southeast freshman keeper Abel Mendiola to give the team a 2-1 lead.
A goal by Alex Kowalski four minutes later led to the final difference.
"I don't think the score was nearly indicative of how close the game really was, and I think they feel that way, too," Griffin said. "They're definitely ranked No. 1 for a reason.
"This will remain 'A Season of Purpose' for us, though. It might be a loss for us, but it's far from the end."