The Stratford High School boys’ soccer team came into Thursday’s Class AAAA playoff game at the Stomping Grounds knowing it needed to slow down its host – South Aiken – to compete for the victory. To achieve this goal, the Knights played extra men back on defense, sacrificing possession of the ball and scoring opportunities.

“We knew they were strong up top with two all-state caliber players in (Daniel Zaremba) and (Skyler) Lightbody,” Stratford head coach Alister DeLong said. “The plan didn’t go well.”

While the strategy to crowd the middle of the field and reduce open spaces prevented the Thoroughbreds from running wild, it didn’t stop them from scoring. Their constant pressure resulted in a pair of first-half goals and ultimately forced the Knights to change tact, resulting in more goals in a 5-1 South Aiken win.

“They played five or six back on defense and that gave us problems early,” said T-Bred’s coach Paul Waters, whose team will remain at home for its next game on Saturday against Lexington. “Eventually our midfielders took over and we had more opportunities for goals. We kept working, working, working and were being patient and taking shots.”

With so much of the action contested in Stratford territory, it was only a matter of time before South Aiken (21-2) scored. The T-Breds broke through eight minutes into the game on a throw-in deep in Stratford (15-7) territory. The powerful and accurate throwing of Jon Granger can turn any South Aiken sideline throw-in into a set piece. While Granger’s intended target was smothered in a pack of players in front of the goal box, the ball squirted to Skyler Lightbody, who was in excellent position to take a poke at a loose ball. He easily deflected the ball past Stratford goalie Justin Overstreet and into the net for the first score of the game.

South Aiken led the rest of the way and doubled its advantage about 10 minutes later. That was when the officials whistled a Knight defender for knocking Zaremba to the ground just beyond the penalty box. On the free kick, Zaremba showed off his strength and blasted the ball toward the net where Granger deflected it and it was touched by a Knight before rolling into the goal.

The penalty was one of many disputed calls that created a contentious atmosphere between the teams and officials, especially Stratford. There was complaining that the calls were favoring the host team. But the root of the issue was that South Aiken’s players had so many more opportunities and were more dynamic that it created situations where they were fouled.

“We got caught up with the referees,” DeLong said, before adding, “all the credit goes to South Aiken. They were the better team.”

The second half got off to a slow start, but mirrored the game’s first 40 minutes in that South Aiken forced the action. The T-Breds had 14 shots on goal and many more kicks that were just wide of the target. Almost midway through the second half, Zaremba drew another foul. But this time, he was inside the penalty box. Lightbody took the penalty kick and easily found open real estate in the bottom-left side of the goal for a score that changed the dynamic of the game.

Down by three with time running out, the Knights had to abandon their heavy defensive approach. This ultimately allowed Josh Lucarelli to score, getting off a point-blank blast off a looping cross that eluded a diving Michael Ulmer (three saves). But it also opened lanes for the T-Breds to attack and led to a pair of goals that created the final margin. The first came off another free kick, where Zaremba made no doubt about the score. The final came when Phillip Hare launched a high-arching pass down the center of the field from his own territory to a streaking Lightbody. The South Aiken star simply flipped the ball over the head of Overstreet (11 saves), who was out of position too far from the goal because he was arguing with a ref.

“We played well. It’s a good win going into the third round,” Waters said of facing Lexington for the third time this season, having already beaten the Wildcats twice. “That’s a team we know. We expect a quality Lexington team to play us hard and we’re going to stay focused on our goal at hand. The ultimate goal.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.