Holy Cross College began its post-season run, facing Judson University in the first round of the CCAC Tournament.
The fourth-seeded Saints played host to the fifth-seeded Eagles, the first time that the Saints have played an opening-round playoff game at home.
Aggressive style gives Holy Cross early lead
The Saints came out aggressive and were rewarded with an early free kick just outside the box. Elmin Ejup took the shot, crossing the ball from the right side of the field to the left side of the net, putting it past Judson keeper Mateo Ojetso.
According to head coach Omar Gallo, that sequence of events was all according to plan.
“Going into the game, we knew we wanted to put them under pressure immediately, to transition in certain parts of the field. Actually, going into the game, the game plan was if we get a free kick there is a certain free kick we wanted to do,” Gallo said. “Give the guys credit, the discipline, the execution. They followed through in what we wanted to do.”
Although the game settled down after the early goal, the Saints kept their up-tempo play, possessing the ball in the Judson third of the field and generating scoring opportunities. Judson eventually settled down and created chances via five first-half corner kicks.
As the first half began to wind down, Juan Perez forced a turnover and drove the ball down the right side, drawing a double team and freeing up Erick Zelaya, who caught Perez’s pass. Zelaya broke free of the defense and shot the ball, keeping it down low and to the right. It made it just past a diving Ojetso to put the Saints up 2-0.
Though the Saints felt confident after the first half, Gallo said that his squad stayed focused and maintained the composure they had started the game with.
“These guys at halftime though they had the lead, they were in [the locker room] saying it is 0-0, we must maintain our composure,” he said.
Saints add insurance, clinch shutout
In the 64th minute, Jeffrey Harper crossed the ball to Perez, who was waiting down low. Perez saw the Ejup open at the top of the box. Perez got Ejup the ball, who drilled it past Ojesto.
Facing a 3-0 deficit, Judson would rally and have a few solid attempts late, but the Holy Cross defense remained solid, and Holy Cross goalie Claudio Fuentealba would deflect the only shot that wound up on net.
Thanks to a strong offensive showing by the Saints and arguably a better defensive effort, Holy Cross eliminated the Eagles from the CCAC Conference Tournament. Gallo credited his defense.
“The guys executed [the game plan] to perfection,” he said.
This likely ends the Eagle’s NAIA tournament ambitions, as the CCAC gives out two NAIA tournament bids, one to the regular season champion and one to the conference tournament champion. Judson is unlikely to receive one of the NAIA at-large bids.
The Saints, however, continue to the second round of the CCAC tournament. They will face the Olivet Nazarene Tigers, the regular season champions. The Saints tied the Tigers in their final regular season game 2-2.
Olivet is coming off an 8-2 victory against eighth-seed Saint Xavier. And though the Saints had their own emphatic victory, Gallo said that the team would continue to approach the game the way they had approached all the others before it.
“What is important right now is rest, recovery, stay disciplined this weekend…really important will be to sit back, relax a little bit, embrace the moment, enjoy the moment, and [then] back to work on Sunday,” he said.
The CCAC has not announced the game time for the semifinal. When the game is played, the Saints will travel on the road to face the Tigers in their home stadium in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
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