Boys soccer playoffs: Focused Catholic blanks Byrd, gets back to Division I final

Catholic High reached Monday’s Division I state soccer semifinal with back-to-back one-goal victories.

In returning to the state championship game for the second straight year, the Bears left no doubt.

Senior forward Blake Cook scored a goal in each half and senior midfielder Alex Leonard had three assists in leading top-seeded Catholic to a 5-0 home victory over fourth-seeded Byrd.

“We had a lot of team bonding this past week,” Cook said. “We got focused and I think every single one of us came out with a lot of confidence that we were going to play great.”

Catholic (16-2) extended its win streak to five games and faces sixth-seeded and reigning state champion St. Paul’s in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. Division I state championship at Southeastern Louisiana’s Strawberry Stadium.

It marks Catholic’s eighth trip to the state championship for the where the Bears last won in 1993.

“With the way they pressed us in the first half it affected our build-up at times,” Catholic second-year coach Jonathan Brunet said. “As we settled into the game toward the end of the first half, I thought we got a lot better.”

Catholic took a 1-0 lead 14 minutes into the match when Cook took a pass from Leonard, drove in from the right side and scored with a left-footed shot from the box into the left corner.

Byrd (16-4-5), which was aiming for its first state final, had six shots, all on goal, in the first half but came up empty against Catholic goalie Rhett DeBlieux who wound up with six saves. Forward Jack Walker, the son of LSU baseball great Todd Walker, had a 22-yard free kick hit off top of the crossbar and another attempt from just outside the top of 18 saved by DeBlieux midway through the half.

Cook ignited the Bears’ four-goal explosion in the second half, taking a pass from Leonard and after hitting the crossbar from 15 yards out, gathered the rebound and scored into an open net in the 53rd minute.

“We found the spaces we wanted to find like we worked on in practice,” Brunet said. “We really exploited them pretty good. I thought we were exceptional in the second half.”

After DeBlieux snuffed out Brennan Nguyen’s corner kick in the 55th minute, Catholic’s offense went into high gear with 16 of its 23 shots in the second half, 12 of 18 of which were on goal.

Catholic made it 3-0 in the 64th minute on an own goal when Byrd’s goalie Michael Hamauei (10 saves) inadvertently knocked the ball into the goal after a run by Cook into the box, opening the floodgates in the next six minutes for goals from Buster Couhig and Marcello Occupati.

“It seems like when we score early things just happen to go our way throughout the course of the game,” Cook said. “We got one early and we kept on bending and bending their defense and it finally broke it at the end.”

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