Nobody said it would be easy, and it certainly wasn't comfortable.
But in the end, the Hilton Head Prep boys soccer team managed to get the job done. The No. 1 seed Dolphins snuck by Christian Academy of Myrtle Beach by the narrowest of margins, battling heat, physical play and unfamiliar surroundings throughout a 2-1 win in the first round of the SCISAA Class 1-A/2-A playoffs.
Afterward, head coach Matt Dakolios told his team they were lucky to advance. The scoreboard emphasized his point. This was a game decided by the slimmest of margins -- a few fortunate bounces here and some timely poaching in front of goal made the difference.
The preamble to the deciding goal was a microcosm of the match: Messy, confusing and ultimately, opportunistic.
It fell to the boot of eighth-grade midfielder Garrett Spencer, brought in as a substitute no more than a minute previously. With the score knotted at 1, a Prep corner kick prompted a scramble in the box before Spencer coolly slotted the loose ball with 13:30 to go.
He looked to have the game sealed with another conversion just minutes later, though on that occasion his effort was nullified for offside. The youngest member of the team played like a veteran under pressure.
"It felt pretty good to get my team a win in the first round of the playoffs," an excited Spencer said after the final whistle. "It felt amazing - not a lot better feeling than that."
After working all season to gain home field advantage throughout the SCISAA tournament, a quirk in the rulebook, which mandates that opponents are not obligated to travel more than 190 miles for a match, meant moving the game to the most advantageous neutral site. The smaller confines of the Beaufort Academy field seemed to clog up Prep's normal attacking style and fostered physical play, though the officials saw few occasions to whistle.
"I think the difference was starting to actually play our game," Dakolios said. "We lost our composure a little. We didn't play that well."
The Dolphins found little in the way of offense after taking an early lead on a strike by freshman Mac Orie. That goal was answered shortly after halftime when a long ball and quick strike beat goalkeeper Robert Clark.
From there, Prep seemed to lose some focus and at times struggled to take advantage of opportunities going forward. Spencer's goal brought back the flair and teamwork that vaulted the Dolphins into the driver's seat in the first place.
"Fortunately we started winning the hustle plays," Dakolios said. "We kept going and kept playing well at the of the game. Not a good performance, but survive and advance."
Prep will play the winner of Oakbrook Prep and Trinity-Byrnes on Wednesday at a to-be-determined site.