March 4, 2024
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Crockett Soccer State-Bound for First Time

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By Ron Barry
Managing Editor

For all the excitement Crockett County’s boys soccer team has created lately, the second half of Saturday’s Sectional Tournament game with Millington was about as anti-climactic as possible.
So dominant were the Cavaliers in the first half of the match – building an insurmountable 4-0 advantage – that Crockett goalkeeper VJ Pillar could have hung a hammock between the goalposts and taken a nap for the final 40 minutes, and the host Cavs still would have won.
But Pillar stayed awake and posted the team’s fourth shutout in five post-season games as Crockett knocked off Millington 5-0 to earn its first-ever trip to the TSSAA State Tournament in Murfreesboro.
It took the Cavs just six minutes into the contest to tally the only goal they would end up needing. Senior midfielder Walter Smith sizzled a direct kick through the Trojan goalkeeper’s hands from about 25 yards out, and Coach Carli Branson’s squad was off and running.
Six minutes later, senior Jorge Martinez took a cross pass from Alex Nolen and knocked it into the net, putting the Cavs up 2-0. Just 11 minutes after that, sophomore Eddy De La Rosa converted another Nolen assist from right in front of the goal, and Crockett led 3-0. De La Rosa suffered a lower leg injury on the play, about the only downside of the afternoon for Crockett.
With two minutes remaining in the half, Noah Davis cashed in on an assist from senior Jonathan Grajeda to make it 4-0 and clinch an outstanding half of play in which the Cavaliers used the stiff breeze at their backs to the fullest advantage.
The large lead allowed Crockett to concentrate on defensive maneuvers for the remainder of the match, with Branson liberally substituting players in an attempt to keep fresh legs on the field. Even with the win now in its favor, Millington only managed a couple of serious shots, and neither was any trouble for Pillar and his teammates to stop.
Crockett posted its final goal with 13 minutes left to play when Nolen was fouled inside the goal box on a rush, drawing a penalty kick which he easily converted for the score.
The win sent the team to Murfreesboro and was the fulfillment of a long-standing target for Branson’s club.
“Ever since we began work in the pre-season, going to State has been our goal,” said Grajeda, who will be heading to Bethel University to play college soccer next season. “All the hard work we’ve put in, all the learning from our mistakes, and all our focus was directed toward making it to State. We knew from the start that we had a good chance to do it if we played our best and continued to work as hard as we could, and here we are. It’s a great feeling.”
Branson cited the team’s desire to excel as one of the keys to reaching Murfreesboro.
“When I would leave the practice field to go home, and see six or seven guys still out there working on their skills, that’s the kind of effort it takes for a team to make it to State,” she said. “These guys have absolutely earned this berth. They have really picked it up since the district tournament loss at South Gibson. They saw how aggressive they needed to become, and they’ve kicked it up a notch. I’m so thrilled for them.”
Crockett (now 12-5-1) was set to begin State Tournament play yesterday evening at 4:30 against Greeneville after The Crockett County Times had gone to press. If the Cavaliers win their first-round game, they would play again today (Wednesday) at 4:30 in the semifinals against the winner of Soddy Daisy and Valor College Prep. The State Championship match is set for Friday at 1:30, with all games scheduled for the Richard Siegel Soccer Complex in Murfreesboro.
One of the keys to Crockett’s success has been the goaltending of Pillar, who is in the position only because of a pair of injuries to the team’s projected starters. The story behind it is as interesting as Pillar’s play has been stellar.
Pillar was on the team for his senior year in school despite no previous soccer experience, but he wasn’t a goalie. He began to stay after practice to help Smith work on his shooting.
“Walter and I would stay late, and he would shoot and shoot while I played goal against him,” Pillar said. “As time went on, I began to stop more and more of his shots. Then when the injuries hit, Walter started begging Coach, ‘Hey, you need to give VJ a chance at goalkeeper. He’s pretty good at it.’ He kept pushing for me, and finally I got my opportunity.”
Pillar’s biggest adjustment was just learning the game and how it is played strategically.
“Catching the ball was no problem, because I have a baseball background,” he said, “and lateral movement and footwork was no problem, because that’s what I did as a linebacker on the football team. The rest is mostly instinct. I still have to learn to punt the ball better after a stop, but I’m getting there.”
The result has been a long string of shutouts. Only South Gibson – another team that earned one of the eight State Tournament berths – has tallied against Crockett in the post-season.
The Cavaliers had never made it past a Sectional or Substate game in the school’s history, with the last opportunity coming in 2014.

Cody Bishop

Cody Bishop

Hi! My name is Cody Bishop and I'm currently working as a Graphic Designer for Magic Valley Publishing, the parent company of the Crockett County Times.

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