By Doug Gorman
The Clayton State men's soccer team is heading to the NCAA Division II Sweet 16.
Clayton State (17-3) advanced to the second round of the tournament with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Lees-McRae (13-5-3) Wednesday afternoon at Laker Field.
The Lakers scored one goal early and one goal late in the first half to build a 2-0 lead at the break and then squelched the Bobcats' second-half rally en route to the win.
CSU's leading scorer Ryan Pugh pulled the trigger on both first-half goals to give the No. 19-ranked Lakers the momentum.
Pugh, who has scored 15 times this season, found the back of the net on his first goal when Kevin Rodriguez fed him a pass in the middle of the field just 6:59 into the contest.
With less than three minutes to go in the first half, Pugh struck again when he converted a pass from Leighton Fredericks to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead.
"Before the game I just kept running things through my head," Pugh said.
"Breakaways and things like that. I just knew I had to execute. When you play teams like this, it's either sink or swim. When we got that breakaway, I knew I just had to finish it."
As it turned out, the two goals were vital to the Lakers' first-round tournament victory.
Although Clayton State outshot the Bobcats 7-4 in the first half, Lees-McRae controlled the flow of the game in the final 45 mnutes and by the end of the contest shots ended even at 12-all.
Lees-McRae put itself back in game about five minutes into the second half when Galvani James took a pass from teammate Justin Jones and cut the lead to 2-1.
Clayton State spent the rest of the game with most of the action down at its end of the field, but came up with enough defensive stops to seal the win.
Despite the victory, veteran Clayton State coach Pete Petersen wasn't happy with how close the game got in the second half.
"I don't know if we ate something (bad) for breakfast, or if it was the hot weather," he said. "When the game is in the day time you are always slugglish. You can't take away anything from them. They finished as runner's up last year, and they have several players back from that team, but this was the worst played game on our part all year."
Laker goalkeeper Brian Garcia made a save in each half to help preseve the win.
The loss ends Lees-McRae's season earlier than last year.
In 2009, the Bobcats advanced all the way to the NCAA Division II title game before falling to Fort Lewis.
Clayton State got back on track Wednesday after losing to Montavello 4-3 in the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament last week.
Until that loss, the Lakers had won six games in a row and were ranked fourth in the country.
They now advance to the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament against Flagler on Friday, another team in the Peach Belt Conference.
The game will be played on the Montevallo campus in Alabama.
In the meeting earlier this year, Flagler handed the Lakers their only conference loss of the season, a 1-0 decision.
"We have been waiting for this all year," Pugh said.
"We didn't show up the first time, but we are ready to show up this time and hopefully get a victory out of it."
The match is set for 4 p.m.