It was truly an epic night for the CIU Rams Men's Soccer Team and for the university as a whole. Fans arrived hours before the match and the pitch was ringed with layers of lawn chairs. Generous giveaways meant a good 80% of match attenders were wearing bright gold "Ram 'em Rams" t-shirts. After some obligatory thank you's and the national anthem, the players were announced and much to the delight of the home fans, history was in the making and the match was underway.
Because of the nature of the grounds, its difficult to say just how many were in attendance, but my guess would be in neighborhood of 400-500, and the Rams' faithful were making themselves heard throughout the night. Both sides were tentative in the opening stages but the pace of play increased with each passing minute. CIU had a handful of shots before the quarter hour mark and were it not for some alert goalkeeping, Toccoa Falls would've been buried early on. However the TFC Eagles could give as well as they received and stung the hands of Stephen Replogle more than once throughout the half. The Rams persisted and slowly gained control of the match, dominating possession and creating opportunities in the final third. Rufus Afropong commanded a strong midfield presence and his insightful passing sparked several good drives down the flanks. All the home side lacked in the first period was a touch of finishing polish. Several efforts flew wide of the mark and the shots on target were all smothered by Toccoa's GK.
The hosts picked up where they left off in the second, resuming offensive pressure against the Eagles. Temperatures cooled as the sun went down, but the match began to heat up. Having established a good rhythm, CIU were intent on finding the net. TFC fielded a couple of big fellas in the back line and their physical defense and size advantage made it difficult for the Rams to break through. About midway through the half, the Rams unleashed a barrage on the opposing net. Forward Daniel Mallard led the assault and an immediate result was a multitude of corners. I've never seen so many corner kicks in one game and there were probably at least twenty total before the end of the match. The game became more physical in the latter stages with tackles aplenty and fatigue taking its toll on both sides. Toccoa managed to find their second wind and the Rams were under the cosh for a good ten minutes. While there were a few close scrapes, CIU withstood the pressure and played smart counterattacking football. On one such counterattack, in the 76th minute, the Rams forced a full-stretch save from the TFC goalie who deflected the ball but was unable to make a clearance. The opportunistic Daniel Mallard was on hand to neatly nod home the sloppy ball and give the hosts a historic one goal lead. Euphoric tumult rose from the stands as the players drank in the glory of their first competitive goal. Try as they might, the Eagles earnestly sought an equalizer but it was too little too late. The lone goal was enough to plunge the CIU Rams to victory and the impressive opening day crowd witnessed history as their boys far surpassed expectations and certainly got the right result.
(photo credit: CIU Men's Soccer FB page, CIUAthletics site)