Game On: Tight, tense’ game expected when rivals Benedictine, host Islands play for Region 3-4A title

By Nathan Dominitz/Special to Prep Sports Report | April 9, 2024

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Islands High School boys soccer coach Justin Brantley recently had a conversation with his wife in which she remarked about the difficulty of the Sharks’ schedule this season.

"It’s all part of a strategy to have the team “battle-tested,” he said, before playing in its biggest games.

“I said there are some teams that look for going 15-0 or 15-1, and that’s a great season,” the third-year Islands coach recalled on Monday. “I find joy out of figuring out what we can work on. I want to play the state’s best. If a school from Atlanta decides to come down to Savannah, I want to play them as soon as possible to get those really, really good games in so I know what we need to work on.

“Ultimately, if you play an opponent that’s not as strong, you’re not really going to find your weaknesses and figure out what you need to improve upon. Once you get to the playoffs, you’re unfamiliar with what the expectation is to succeed in the playoffs.”

The Sharks (9-5-1) have a battle at home at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and it’s with a very familiar opponent, Benedictine (9-4-2). The Cadets – who also play a tough slate to prepare for the playoffs – and the Sharks are both 6-1 in Region 3-4A, with the winner capturing the league crown, the critical higher seeding -- and potentially more home matches -- in the GHSA state playoffs.

“It’s for the region; two very good teams. It could go either way, mate,” said Moore, in his 12th season at Benedictine, the defending region champion. “It’s a big rivalry. It’s two very different teams this year. I don’t think either of us are to the level we were in the past, but we’re still very good.”

The optimistic Brantley has a sense of how good his team is – or can be – after tough matches with the likes of River Ridge (16-0-0), the No. 1 squad in Class 6A and in all classifications in the state, according to the Georgia boys soccer coaches poll on River Ridge won 4-1 on Feb. 23.

“Ultimately, it’s what team for us shows up,” Brantley said. “If we get that team that was able to have a 1-1 half against the state’s best, then I’m very confident. But we’ve also had some games where we didn’t look our best. We’ve had halves in which we wish we would have made less mistakes. That’s sports. That comes with it.”

Islands played host Benedictine on March 14 and lost 2-1 as the Cadets’ Chris Woods collected one goal and one assist.

“We went a goal down but it was a tight game, as I expected,” Moore said. “I expect it to be even tighter on Tuesday.”

The Cadets are creating a lot of scoring chances but not finishing with as many goals as they should, the coach said.

“The most consistent part of our season has been being inconsistent,” Moore, noting that Islands might have the same perspective on their season.

“The problem with creating chances is you’ve got to put the ball in the net,” he said. “I felt in the Islands game when we played them last time, they were always in the game because we didn’t score on the number of chances that maybe we should have done in the first half. They’re a sort of team that if they get a few chances, they’ll take them.”

Moore is predicting a low-scoring, one-goal game on Tuesday, like 1-0 or 2-1, or even going to penalty kicks, where it’s a matter of who misses. He’s not expecting a repeat of last season, when Islands won at home 2-1 in the first matchup, then Benedictine dominated the rematch 6-1.

“I think they know enough about us and we know enough about them, it’s just whoever plays well enough on the night,” Moore said. “There’s going to be a bit of nerves on both sides. There’s going to be a bit of tension on both sides. There’s going to be a lot of competitive edge on both sides. Whoever comes out on top, it’s just going to be a very, very tight, tense affair. I’m pretty sure of that.”

Both squads rely on a heavy mix of underclassmen with a few seniors in their starting lineups, which Brantley said isn’t common for the larger classification schools.

“Typically, you see those teams being led by juniors and seniors,” Brantley said. “Our team is a little bit different. We put an emphasis on making sure our young guys get playing time. They’ve thrived from that.”

The Sharks will start four freshmen and three sophomores on Tuesday, he said. Left wing JJ Stein, a 10th-grader, has eight goals and six assists in 11 games.

They also will look to standouts in junior midfielder Evan Narvaez (13 goals, 14 assists in 11 games), senior forward Ryan Winters (13 goals, two assists, 10 games), junior defensive midfielder Jack Stephans (three goals, six assists, eight games) and junior goalkeeper Wilmer Martinez (6-2-1 record, 25 saves, 12 goals allowed, four shutouts in nine games).

Moore said that like the Sharks, the Cadets don’t depend on one dominant goal scorer. Woods, a junior forward, has 13 goals, with sophomore forward Mills Hollis at a dozen, the coach said. Sophomores Asher Herrin and Parker Lewis are keys at midfield, while seniors Andrew Kuyoth and Thomas Fogarty anchor the backline with sophomore Ben Weisel in goal.


PHOTO CREDIT:  Courtesy Islands High School Soccer Program and Benedictine Military School Soccer Program


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