From Staff Reports
What has been brewing as the potential "Game of the Year" for men's soccer in the Peach Belt Conference is here on Saturday as the Clayton State Lakers play host to the Lander Bearcats at 7:30 p.m. at Laker Field.
In what has become the premier rivalry in men's soccer in the Peach Belt, a lot is at stake when these two teams square off. Sixth-ranked Clayton State enters the game 14-2 overall and 6-1 in the Peach Belt, while Lander is 11-5 and an undefeated 7-0 in the Peach Belt. It's also "Senior Night" at Laker Field and the final regular season home games for Clayton State seniors Brett Neilson, Jonathan McKeever, Igor Lukic and Deni Lulic.
However, the result on the field is what matters the most. The Bearcats have clinched at least a share of the PBC regular season championship and a victory would clinch Lander the outright PBC regular season championship and the top seed in next week's PBC Tournament. Should Clayton State prevail, the Lakers would share the regular season title with Lander and get awarded the top seed in the conference tournament.
It's more than what is at stake that fuels this weekend - there's also the rivalry. This is the 21st meeting between Lander and Clayton State, and the Bearcats hold an 11-6-3 lead in the series.
Based on recent results, this should be as tight as gets. Lander won both times last season - 1-0 to close out the regular season and 2-1 in the PBC Tournament semifinals.
Head coach Pete Petersen's Clayton State Lakers have enjoyed arguably the best regular season in Petersen's seven seasons as head coach. The Lakers have come alive offensively this season, leading the Peach Belt in goals scored (45) and assists (38). In addition, Clayton State has not abandoned its long-time stellar defensive philosophy, having allowed only 11 goals on the season with a 0.69 goals-against average and seven shutouts.
Junior forward Ryan Pugh has emerged as the offensive catalyst for the Lakers this season, currently leading the PBC in both goals scored (11) and points scored (26). He's been selected Peach Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week an unprecedented three times this season, and is the leading candidate for PBC Player of the Year honors.
But it doesn't end with Pugh. Steady junior forward Leighton Fredericks has overcome a slow start with seven goals and three assists for 17 points, while freshman forward Arturo Cruz has provided a dynamic spark with four goals and seven assists for 15 points. And in the midfield, junior Matty Phillips is tied for the Peach Belt lead in assists with eight.
Defensively, the Lakers have held steadfast to tradition behind the stellar play of two-time PBC Defensive Players of the Week Neilson and Lukic, in addition to junior central defender Sam Bevan and defensive flanks McKeever and junior Roger Boniface. In goal, junior and two-time PBC Goalkeeper of the Week Brian Garcia leads the PBC with a 0.58 GAA and seven shutouts.