HARRISON -- Weather conditions were less than ideal Thursday morning as both the Decatur Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs and their entourage of supporters traveled east to Harrison for the first round of the 3A state soccer playoffs. Unfortunately, one Decatur team ended its 2023 season, while the other claimed victory to move on to the second round of play.
Heavy thunderstorms with hail, strong winds, and torrential downpours blanketed the northern part of Arkansas Wednesday night and most of Thursday morning, causing field number two at the Harrison soccer complex to be extremely poor, especially around the west sideline, where both teams were stationed. Fortunately for both Decatur teams and their opponents, the sun made its appearance briefly during the late afternoon, which enabled the teams to play with only light rain showers for the remainder of the evening.
The Lady Bulldogs, under coach Cali Lankford and assistant coach Mike Eckels, took to the field, ready to take on North Little Rock-based Central Arkansas Christian Lady Mustangs (CAC) in a 4 p.m. contest.
The Decatur girls played with the same intensity as they did during the final regular season contest at Bulldog Stadium in Decatur on May 5. During the first half, the Lady Bulldogs made several unsuccessful attacks on the goal under captain Heaven McGarrah and the offensive front line consisting of Jazmine Herrera, Shylee Morales, However, excellent goalkeeping by both the Lady Mustang and its defensive lines prevented Decatur from scoring.
With five minutes left to play in the first half, a Lady Mustang player slipped the ball past rookie goalie California Herrington for the first score of the contest and gave CAC the half-time lead, 1-0.
The Lady Mustangs came out determined to continue their season. The more aggressive stance gave them four more goals, which led to Central Arkansas Christian claiming the first-round win 5-0 and ending the Decatur Lady Bulldogs remarkable second season with 5-4-2 overall record and 0-1 in tournament play.
Herrington, which only took on the goalie position four weeks ago put up one of the best performances repelling at least 40 attacks on the Decatur defended goal. Herrington, who is a member of the 2A -1 West junior high basketball champions, has grown into this job, thanks in large part to Bulldog assistant soccer coach Ederlee Gomez's training and will be a leader for the Lady Bulldogs for the next three years.
After the girls lost to CAC, the Decatur Bulldogs took the field for a series of warm-ups and drills in preparation for its 7 p.m. contest with the Maumelle Charter Falcons. This was a team that Decatur faced in the first round of the 3A state tournament in North Little Rock in 2021. The Bulldogs claimed the victory, 4-2, and went on to face Harding Academy in the second round of that tournament, which Decatur lost, 6-0.
As with the girls' contest just two hours earlier, the Bulldogs faced deplorable field conditions, with several areas of thick mud, especially around the front of the goals and along the western sideline. Given these conditions, it was surprising that no one on all four teams suffered injuries other than mud pies in the face.
From the opening ticks of the scoreboard clock, the Bulldogs went on the offensive, passing the ball into the backfield and driving in toward the Maumelle goal. Robert "T" Thang and Kenny Barrios kept driving the ball downfield toward the Falcon goalie, and several times the Falcon goalie managed to repel Decatur's attempts -- until the halfway mark of the first half when Thang caught him off guard for Decatur's first goal of the tournament.
As the first half was ramping up, Thang scored the team's second goal to take a 2-0 lead into the halftime break.
A few minutes into the second half Kenny Barrios scored the Bulldogs' third goal, to lead 3-0.
As the second half reached the 20-minute mark, Maumelle Charter managed to fire a shot past Decatur's senior goalkeeper Ben Watkins to deny the Bulldogs a shutout win. After that, Watkins, defensive lineman Deegan Brooks, Marlin Revolorio and Cameron Vang held fast, repelling any further incursions into the Bulldog-defended net.
As with the match two years earlier, the Decatur Bulldogs defeated the Maumelle Charter Falcons 3-1 to move on to the second-round matchup with the Cassatot River Eagles Friday afternoon.
The Bulldogs face a monumental hurdle ahead of them, as no Decatur team has ever passed the state tournament's second round. But this year was a little different for the Bulldogs.
Decatur came out strong in the first half, staying on the offensive for the first 40 minutes. Devin Thor kicked off the Bulldog scoring drive just over the midway mark of the half for Decatur's first lead of the match. As the half was coming to a close, Thang slipped the ball past the Eagle goalie to extend Decatur's lead to 2-0.
Just a few minutes into the second half, Cassatot River fired the ball past Bulldog Ben Watkins to cut the Decatur lead to one. But the Bulldogs would get that point back due to a successful run on the Eagle goal by defender Deegan Brooks, who took the ball near the Decatur-defended goal and was able to drive it to the other end of the field and fire it into the goal for the Bulldogs third point and a 3-1 lead.
With time slipping away, the Eagles went on the attack and scored their second goal of the match. But time ran out on the Cassatot River Eagles and the Bulldogs went on to win their first tournament second-round match, 3-2, to move on to the final four.
The final four were made up of the top three teams of the 3A West conference: the Green Forest Tigers, Haas Hall-Bentonville and the Decatur Bulldogs. Green Forest knocked off the Central Arkansas Christian Mustangs, 4-1, once play resumed following a two-hour delay due to thunderstorms in the area.
Two teams from Northwest Arkansas were in the second match of the boys' final four on Saturday afternoon in Harrision, Decatur and Haas Hall-Bentonville.
During the regular season, the Bulldogs took a win against the Huskies at Bulldog Stadium in Decatur during the late April match. Earlier that month, during a fierce wind event in Bentonville, the Huskies managed a comeback to tie the match.
As was the case in the Thursday night match with Maumelle Charter, the field was extremely slick, with the sidelines resembling a muddy bog. But the slippery condition did not slow down either team as they took the field with but one goal in mind, to advance to the championship round of the 3A tournament. The showdown was on.
Both teams' intensity levels were on high as they attacked the ball. Suddenly, just under the 30-minute mark of the first half, a Bulldog defender caused a foul that gave the Huskies a free kick. It was Haas Hall's Blake Sostrin squaring off against Bulldog top goalie Ben Watkins. Sostrin fired the ball into the net for the Huskies' first goal of the contest. At just under 20 minutes left in the first half, Sortin managed his second goal of the night, extending the Huskies' lead to two.
At halftime, the pressures of the contest began to overwhelm the Bulldogs and several arguments broke out, with one player angry at another for a simple mistake. This set coach Eddie Lucio off as he tried to get the players to shake off this anger and get his kids back into the contest.
"I don't care what mistakes took place in the half. That half is history," Lucio shouted. "We need to get our head into the game and quit fighting among ourselves. I'm not ready to go home yet I want to go all the way to the top. Get your heads back into the contest."
Lucio's speech worked and the Bulldogs took the field, determined to make history by going to the championship.
However, Ameen Riyas and Blake Curriden put the contest away for the Haas Hall-Bentonville Huskies and they went on to defeat the Decatur Bulldogs, 4-0, to advance to the 3Achampionship against conference rival Green Forest.
Although the 2023 final pole will not be out until the championship round, it is most likely that the Decatur Bulldogs will hold the number four position since Central Arkansas Christian holds a better record than Decatur.
But the fact that the Decatur Bulldogs posted a remarkable season in 2023, finishing third in the 3A West conference and making it into the semifinals of the 3A tournament, with a 9-3-2 conference recorded and 12-4-2 overall (including the 2-1 tournament play).