Now, as Cartersville prepares to face second-ranked Gainesville in the first round of the Georgia High School Association State Soccer Tournament, the Canes believe they have become better and should get a boost if Cravey can return from a cracked collarbone.
“Our team’s adjusted very well. Every player’s stepped up that’s on the field when need be,” Cartersville coach D.J. Paradis said. “We’ve come to the fact that we know that with Zach on the field, you can step back and watch sometimes, but without him we gotta make sure that we play as a team and make the runs that before maybe we could sit back and let Zach make the run with the ball instead of us helping him out. Now it’s more of a team defense, team offense. Zach was pretty much the heart of our team, defensively and the way he moved the ball offensively, but we’ve come together.”
“Everybody’s had to pick up their pace ’cause he was our center workhorse. It’s crazy how long he can run,” Canes forward and leading goal scorer Matthew Bryson said. “We all just kind of stepped up our game and it made us realize how when he comes back, I think we’ll be a lot better because we all have motivated ourselves to play better. And I think that’s why we’re now better offensively. [We] definitely tried harder because we knew those were two key wins we had to have without Zach. I think if he comes back [for] Gainesville we’ll be good.”
Without Cravey, Cartersville picked up important region wins, 4-1 over Murray County on April 20 and 5-1 over Cedartown on April 23. That clinched the region’s fourth seed, setting up a game with Region 8-AAA’s top-seed.
The Canes (9-8-1) and Red Elephants (15-1-1) are not strangers to one another, having played last season in a 2-0 win for Gainesville.
“We played ’em last year and they’re a pretty stacked team. We’re a stacked team as well,” said Cartersville goalkeeper Fernando Serrano. “We’ve played different than last year. We’re definitely a lot more prepared. We know how they play, and we’ve knocked out teams that we shouldn’t have beat this year. So, I think if we go and play like we’ve played teams this year, we should stack [up well].”
The Red Elephants enter their game with the Canes having won 14 straight games, with their only loss of the season coming Feb. 16 against Mill Creek, the No. 7 team in Class AAAAA.
Paradis noted his team won’t play timid against Gainesville.
“We’re gonna approach it aggressively. We’re gonna go out and try a couple of new things since a couple of teams already have the scouting report out on us about how we play. So, we’re gonna make some changes that will hopefully make us more offensive and maybe make the other team rethink how they play us in the middle of the game. We want them to have to change to us and not us change to them this game,” he said. “We know we’re capable of going out and beating Gainesville, and if we do, we’ll probably be the most capable team in our bracket to make a run to the finals, so it’s gonna clear an opportunity for us to get to the semifinals and play a Southeast [Whitfield] or a St. Pius.
“We just have to make sure when the breaks go our way we take advantage and make sure defensively we play mistake free.”
Serrano expects his team’s defense to be up to the challenge of slowing a Red Elephant team that has scored 63 goals during its winning streak.
“Different defenses play a lot differently. As far as our defense, we like to mold ourselves to how other teams play,” the senior goalie said. “I mean, teams that we’ve played that have been top schools [that] usually score six goals on different teams, they score maybe a couple goals on us. It’s a little more difficult for them, I’d say.”
Cartersville also has to make life difficult for the Gainesville defense, which allowed six goals all year. The Canes have been very adept at scoring in the air, so their coach would like to see them utilize more of those opportunities.
“When we win the ball, [we need to] make sure we get numbers up very quickly and use our speed and our width to our advantage with our team ’cause we’re very good in the air,” Paradis said. “Over 50 percent of our goals this year have come off a cross or a ball just dropping in the box from either a shot or a cross being able to hit the ground and us taking advantage of our chances.”
Cartersville has to play extremely well to beat a team of the Red Elephants’ caliber, but a mistake here or there won’t doom the team.
“It doesn’t have to be the perfect game, but it has to be close enough,” Paradis acknowledged. “We gotta make sure that we limit their opportunities and maximize ours. Again, that’s part of us going out and playing aggressively but also playing smart and making sure that when we do turn over the ball that our first priority is to get behind the ball and make sure we have numbers.”
The way the Canes performed without Cravey to end the season has encouraged Paradis, who has the senior midfielder on his injured reserve list but hasn’t ruled him out of the game.
“The two Ritchers [Harlan and Axel] have stepped back into center mid and they’ve been able to move the ball and they play well off each other, and they’ve been able to combine the other players in. It’s opened our game, actually, a good bit,” he said. “We’ve taken more shots in the last few games. We’ve moved the ball efficiently down the wings with them in the center. So, when Zach comes back, it’s just gonna be an added opportunity to put him up on the front line and just let us attack and use his skill as another tool since our team has come even closer with the last two or three games.”
As well as Cartersville played in his absence, it could certainly use Cravey’s experience in the lineup. He and Serrano are the lone holdovers from the Canes’ last state berth.
“We only really have two players from the last time we made state and that was Zach Cravey and our goalkeeper Fernando Serrano. They were both freshmen, they both started that game and contributed to that game,” said Paradis, an assistant coach during that 2-1 loss to eventual state champion St. Pius in 2009. “We’re going in with little state experience, but I think what the team has gone through the last two years plus this season [increases] our want and desire to do well in the state [playoffs].”
According to Bryson, it will take heart for Cartersville to go out and earn the result it wants.
“Even in close games that we’ve been unlucky in — [like against] Southeast Whitfield — we had a lot of heart and we could’ve won more games, but if we keep our focus and heart and if we bend but don’t break, I think we’ll be good,” the junior said. “Maybe they’ll overlook us, we can sneak a few in and hold our ground.”
The Canes make their trip to Gainesville on Thursday. The game is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.