Adrian Morales felt like his old self Thursday.
After scoring more than 20 goals as a sophomore, Morales moved back for his junior season, more content to defend and pass to freshman teammates, he said. But the Hardeeville High School boys soccer team needed him up top to open the Class 1-A playoffs.
And Morales responded with a second-half hat trick to help the Hurricanes defeat St. John's 5-4 in Hardeeville. The Hurricanes advance to play at the Governor's School on Saturday in Hartsville.
The Hurricanes led 5-1 after Morales' third goal, in the 60th minute. But the Islanders rallied as Hardeeville coach Todd Roberson balanced keeping his starters healthy with generous substitutions while trying to preserve the lead.
"We play seven freshman," Roberson said. "But this is a good experience for them. Hopefully we can rebound and understand you can't let a team come back when you've got them against the ropes."
Hardeeville survived after Islanders forward Jesus Martinez missed the potential equalizer from the top of the 18-yard box in stoppage time.
Morales' goal total dropped below 10 during 2012, but he said he was content helping freshmen such as standout Martin Sotelo, who entered the playoffs with 14 goals and added another in the 16th minute Thursday.
"I like passing," Morales said. "I've got teammates who want to play and score. Martin is a good scorer."
Roberson said he felt the Hurricanes could have closed the game out sooner, that they missed several opportunities to finish. Striker Cruz Romero came back after not converting an early one-on-one opportunity and gave Hardeeville a 2-1 lead off a ball up the middle from Morales.
Morales then scored three goals during a five-minute span to start the second half. His opportunity to play up came after his brother, Alex, received a red card in a previous game and had to sit.
Hardeeville (9-4) is making its fourth consecutive playoff appearance, but the young 'Canes have only two seniors. Roberson said his group was learning on the fly Thursday.
"We're a very inexperienced team," he said. "And we've never been in a situation like this. And our older kids, we're trying to save them so they don't get injured. When you play a team like this and get ahead 5-1, you're worried about them injuring your good players, because they have nothing to lose."
The Canes' season was almost derailed by the late Islanders' push. St. John's forward Ryan Dearborn pulled his team within one with a shot deflected in from the right corner.
Dearborn said the Islanders remained patient and tried to leave more balls in front of the net during the second half.
"We knew we could score," Dearborn said. "We were just struggling in the first half."
Said Sotelo: "We just got too confident. We let them go by."
But Hardeeville held on, with Morales just missing a fourth goal before the final whistle.