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Clayton State looks to get past Elite 8 against Rollins

By Doug Gorman

dgorman@news-daily.com

When Clayton State soccer coach Pete Petersen sat down to talk about his team at the beginning of the season, there was confidence in his voice.

The veteran soccer coach knew he had the talent in place to have a pretty good team. What he didn't know was how well his squad was going to mesh when it came time to blend the collection of veteran players with newcomers to form a cohesiveness needed to succeed in the always tough Peach Belt Conference and beyond.

One of the first thing Petersen did even before the squad had its first on-campus practice was to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Southern Crescent.

The Lakers headed to the North Georgia mountains, leaving cell phones, I-pods and any connections to the outside world behind.

"We've never done this before," Petersen said. "We are going to do it again. I would like to take them to the beach next time. Maybe find a church or a gym where we can camp out."

The trip allowed the team to focus on the upcoming season, and served as a magic elixir for what has been the best season in school history with a 19-3 overall record, and getting ranked as high as No. 4 in the county at one time.

Now, the Lakers find themselves in the NCAA Division II Elite 8 tournament for the first time in school history. The saga continues for the Lakers Saturday night against Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla starting a 7 p.m.

Despite the success, Petersen refuses to call this group of soccer players a team of destiny.

"That's for after the season, Petersen said Thursday as he walked from the Athletics and Fitness Center to the team's soccer field for practice.

He will say this group is one of the hardest working squads he has ever been around.

"Every team in sports tries to work hard, but this team seems to take it a little further compared to a lot of other teams, so I salute them for that, " Petersen said. "I think that has been the recipe for success."

Clayton State's season can best be described as a series of winning streaks. The Lakers won nine of their first 11 games. Right before the Peach Belt Conference tournament, the Lakers rolled off six wins in a row, including a heart-stopping 1-0 double overtime decision against conference rival Lander.

Clayton State's strong regular-season performance pretty much assured them of a trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament regardless of what happened once it got to the conference postseason.

A fluke 4-3 defeat against Montevallo in the semifinals was the last loss for the Lakers and also served as a wake-up call.

Clayton State opened the NCAA Tournament at home with a 2-1 win against Lees McRae, last year's NCAA Division II runner-up.

They have also posted back-to-back 1-0 decisions against Flagler and Anderson.

Several players have stepped it up for Clayton State this year. Jonesboro High School graduate Brian Garcia has been the catalyst in goal, turning in 11 shutouts to go along with his 0.64 goals against average.

After Leighton Fredericks scored the lone goal against Anderson, Garcia came up big when Lasse Sohrweide got to a pass in the penalty box and nearly headed it into the net for what would have been the tying goal with about two minutes left. Garcia extended his body and made what should goes down as the biggest of his 61 saves this season.

Garcia admits he never thinks about how big a save is until after the game.

"When it happened I don't know why, but I thought there was a foul," he said. "Everything happened so fast. I saw him push off of Matty (Phillips), and it was just a reflex save because I just dove."

Rollins comes into the match with a 13-3-3 record including NCAA tournament wins against West Florida and Barry College.

The Lakers will take on Rollins on the smallest field they have played on all season.

To prepare for the game, the Lakers have used flags to shorten their field at practice and to simulate the smaller dimensions they will face on Friday.

"They're big, and savvy on a very small field," Petersen said. "It's the smallest field in the south. That's why we marked it off the way we did. Soccer is a game of space, so you are going to have a lot more runs in."

Clayton State has never won a national title in any sport. The 2007 women's basketball team made it to the NCAA Division II Final four. The men's soccer team has a chance to equal that piece of school history with one more victory and bring home the ultimate prize with three more wins.

"We really feel like we can go all the way," Fredricks said. We just have to work really hard."