The Clemson men’s soccer team finished strong by wrapping up the regular season with a persuasive 3-0 win at home over ACC-foe Virginia Tech.
Coming on the heels of a 2-2 road-draw with top-ranked Maryland, the win over Virginia Tech capped a late season surge, and secured the Tigers’ spot as the fourth seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament, as well as the right to host Boston College in a quarterfinal round.
“I’m delighted with the players and their performance,” said Clemson coach Mike Noonan. “They deserve all the credit. They prepared properly. About fifteen minutes into practice yesterday, I knew they were going to perform well tonight.”
With Francklin Blaise, Bo Godwin, and Austin Savage receiving senior night honors, it was fitting that Savage put the Tigers on top with a goal in the 24th-minute. Picking up a deflected cross from the left, Savage dribbled into the box, left-center, and from 16 yards found the back post corner of the net with a right-footed shot curled deftly around a defender and Hokies keeper Kyle Renfro.
Savage’s goal, which was his team-leading eighth of the season, rewarded an early stretch of fluid attacking play by the Tigers, and brought some relief to Noonan, who‘s sometimes seen his team struggle to convert its chances.
“I was just hoping that their performance was going to turn over into goals,” said Noonan. “In the first half, our first twenty-five or thirty minutes was outstanding and we only had one goal to show for it. The post was in our way, and their goalkeeper is very good, which we knew going in. We knew we were going to have to beat them with quality, and Austin’s goal was high-quality.”
In a development which Noonan sees as significant, Savage appears to be emerging as the consistent threat in front of goal that the Tigers have sometimes lacked this season.
“It’s huge,” said Noonan. “Austin’s capable, there’s no question about it. He’s always been capable. With Austin it’s always been about his internal motivation to do it game-in and game-out. With any goal-scorer, their confidence is better when they score goals. Once he started scoring goals, he’s dangerous.
“And he can score them any which way. He had a hat-trick against Gardner-Webb, and it was really four goals because he was called off-side on one, but he had one with the left foot, right foot and the head. But it’s also the guys who are getting him the ball.”
Clemson withstood a flurry by Virginia Tech late in the first half, refocused at halftime, then put the game away with a pair of second-half goals by Alex Stockinger.
Stockinger’s first tally came in the 64th-minute, and resulted from Renfro saving a shot by Savage on a breakaway, but giving up a long rebound. With Renfro stranded on the floor near the penalty spot, Stockinger closed at the eighteen and buried his shot low in the left-side back of the net.
A holding midfielder who rarely gets a whiff of goal, Stockinger struck again in the 71st-minute. TJ Casner let Ara Amirkhanian’s low left-side cross spread inside, and Stockinger’s first-time right-footed shot from 22 yards skipped to the lower right corner of the net and beat Renfro to his left.
“He’s turned into Lionel Messi in the last three games,” said Noonan. “The beauty of Stocks is that he’s just so grounded, that the goals won’t affect him at all. He’ll just go out and try to do a workmanlike job like he always does.”
Clemson improved to 6-8-4 overall, and 3-2-3 in the ACC, while Virginia Tech slipped to 6-9-3 and 0-7-1. The Tigers had 20 shots to the Hokies’ 10, and had a 9-4 advantage in corner kicks. In goal, Clemson’s Cody Mizell had 6 saves, while Renfro was credited with 5.
“That was a pretty good performance tonight in a big moment,” said Noonan. “I was just happy because it was a complete performance. You guys usually ask me, ’Who played well?’ Well the team played well. When you get those kinds of performances, then hopefully you can build on it. That’s as complete a game as we’ve played this year, and it’s a good time to be doing it.”