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East Ridge shuts down Newsome for 7A boys soccer championship

Max Kempany puts the Wolves on the board; Amir Taylor closes it out with two scores
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DELAND, FLORIDA – Nicholas Aquilino and the Clermont East Ridge defense built a steel wall against Lithia Newsome in Saturday’s Class 7A state final. All the Knights needed was one goal.

Max Kempany scored the game-winner on a highlight-reel goal, and Amir Taylor added two more goals to send the Knights to a 3-0 victory. The victory gave East Ridge its first title and denied the Wolves their first.

The East Ridge boys loft their prize for capturing the FHSAA 7A state championship.

The East Ridge boys loft their prize for capturing the FHSAA 7A state championship.

Aquilino and the Knights (19-3-1) completed their fourth shutout of the playoffs. Each time, they defused the other team’s top scorers. Aquilino had three saves, but also intercepted several crosses into the box.

Their final defusion was of a Newsome offense led by Stephen Gilbert. With a body like a linebacker with wide-receiver speed, Gilbert challenged the Knights in several ways. When he wasn’t testing Aquilino, Greyson Ayer and Gabe Canineu were.

East Ridge coach John Quirk answered with a senior-led defense and midfield led by Jackson Sandoval and Chase Barth. They kept Gilbert and his teammates at bay. “Our strategy is to play our game,” Sandoval said. “We know we can play that type of speed. We can defend long balls. We’ve been doing it all season. One goal in the entire state tournament, we don’t have a strategy. We play as we always do.”

Quirk added “Our ability to hold teams to one goal in five playoff matches speaks volumes about our goalkeeping and our team defense. I’m really proud of them.”

Both teams probed the defenses. But it wasn’t until Kempany’s highlight-reel goal that East Ridge found a way in. Ethan Loden ran up the left sideline, then centered along the 6-yard box. Kempany, defended by two players, back-heeled the ball past Newsome keeper Zachary Heinis to put the Knights up 1-0 with 23:40 left in the first half.

“It was a crazy goal,” Kempany said. “It was in the moment. I’m glad it went in.”

Junior Amir Taylor added two more goals, both in the second half. With 33:58 left in regulation, an East Ridge player lofted a pass into the penalty area. The pass bounced off Newsome’s Kyle Smith to Taylor, who then scored for a 2-0 Knights lead.

Taylor scored again with 14:59 left, this one from 15 yards out.

“At the start of the game, I had a rough start. I had to focus when I got put on the bench. I came back in focused up. The first goal was on the first touch actually. I shot it into the top corner. The second was a good ball from Max. I got that and scored. It’s all thanks to my teammates.”

Newsome coach Allen Ware said it was almost as if the Knights stole the Wolves’ attack.

“They played our game,” Ware said. “We’re high-pressure on teams, pesky. That’s the type of game we usually play. They wanted it. The came out and took it to us.

“We had a few guys who felt like the game was maybe too big. But give them credit. From the 10-minute mark on, they were the better team.”

The Wolves still tried to change the ending. Gilbert led several charges in the second half. A couple came off corner kicks just wide of the goal.

Newsome’s Gabe Canineu tested Aquilino by lofting a shot toward the goal. Aquilino leaped and made a one-handed save punching the ball over the crossbar.

“I saw the shot and just fell back with it,” Aquilino said. “I didn’t really think about it. I just reacted last minute. That’s why I shot the one arm up and got the save.”

The Knights will face a huge challenge getting back to the state final. They lose 13 seniors, including most of their defense and midfield.

However, these East Ridge seniors capped a journey where they advanced for the first time beyond the region finals. They had lost in the consecutive regional finals the last two years.

“These seniors made a pact,” Quirk said. “We had some things fall in our favor as far as home games. We felt a little disrespected being the five seed in this region. Always being an underdog, we just took that and ran with it. Five seed in Region 1, then three seed in the Final Four, and here we are with this 3-0 victory in the final.”