There’s a pretty simple recipe for winning tight soccer matches — when opportunity knocks, be ready to answer.
On Saturday afternoon, the Center Grove boys did just that.
The Trojan offense had someone waiting on the back side of the net at the right times, and the defense smothered Franklin anytime it threatened as the defending Class 2A state champions put away the Grizzly Cubs, 2-0, to retain their sectional crown.
Center Grove (11-3-3) will take on Franklin Central on Thursday afternoon in a regional semifinal at Mt. Vernon (Fortville).
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Center Grove coach Jameson McLaughlin had made crashing the weak side on scoring chances a priority recently, and it paid dividends on a pair of occasions in the first half.
A little less than 15 minutes into the action, a low throw-in from Luke Boha skipped its way into the box and past Franklin goalie Austin Barnard. Just before the ball completed a fruitless journey across the goal mouth, Jack Neal came rushing in to tap it in.
Then, just before the 20-minute mark, Connor Campbell converted in similar fashion off an assist from Jared Wilkerson.
Those two goals were more than enough of a cushion for the Center Grove defense, which posted its 12th shutout of the season. Franklin (14-2-2) pushed its way inside the Trojans’ penalty area on numerous occasions throughout the match, but it had a great deal of difficulty generating uncontested shots from close range.
“They do a good job of making sure that there’s nothing clean, ever,” McLaughlin said, “and if you can do that, then it’s hard to score. It was a little sketchy, but they did a good job of making sure that it never was too dangerous.”
Center Grove goalkeeper Jacob Cooley was seldom tested despite Franklin’s frequent forays into scoring territory. Barnard was much busier at the other end, finishing the day with 10 saves — including a couple of highlight-reel stops.
Franklin coach Tony Harris feels as though the match was proof that his program has closed the gap considerably in recent years — but close isn’t what the Grizzly Cubs are after.
“We game-planned them really well; I was real happy how we played them,” Harris said. “We just didn’t get the ball in the back of the net. …
“I think our program’s going in the right direction; we’re getting there. We’ve got to get this game done, though, one of these days. That’s for sure.”
For Center Grove, the quest for a repeat continues — and Campbell likes what he sees from his teammates of late.
“We have a good mix between guys who have been there and then guys who are just new coming in,” said Campbell, the lone returning starter from last year’s title squad. “The guys that have experience are really setting a good example for the guys that are coming in new. I think that we’re starting to come together this past month, and I think it’s starting to look pretty good.”