HPU Men’s Soccer Advances to Big South Championship with 3-1 Win

• HPU struck three times in the first half to roll past No. 4 seed Liberty, 3-1, in the Big South Semifinals
• Sophomore Connor Cesar collected his first multi-goal game, scoring twice in a three-minute stretch in the first half to give the Panthers a two-goal lead.
• High Point will host the Big South Championship match on Sunday at 2 p.m. against No. 6 seed Presbyterian.

HIGH POINT, N.C. – A three-goal outburst in the first half and a steady defensive effort pushed the High Point University men’s soccer team one step closer to a conference championship as they defeated Liberty, 3-1, on Wednesday evening at Vert Stadium.

“I thought we found a deserving early goal off a set piece,” head coach EJ O’Keeffe said. “We looked good in those first five minutes, but then we relaxed and didn’t execute the game plan. (The tying goal) woke us back up and we were able to execute what we wanted to do and we found two goals.

“We were able to keep a zero in the second half and put ourselves in a position to win the match. I am elated to be playing in our second title game in three years. We’re very excited to be playing at our home field and looking forward to the challenge.”

The Panthers (10-5-3) will participate in the Big South Championship for the second time in three years and for the fourth time overall. HPU is seeking its first conference title and bid to the NCAA tournament. As the top seed, High Point earned the right to host the match and will welcome No. 6 seed Presbyterian on Sunday at 2 p.m.

The Purple & White were victorious for the sixth straight match, the longest streak for the program since 2010. Additionally, the stretch is tied for the second-longest active win streak in the nation.

High Point came out on a mission in the early stages and found a goal to seize momentum in the fourth minute. Sophomore Ryan Inman authored a gorgeous corner kick from the left side to the far right post where sophomore Jonathan Bolanos headed it home past James Knoebel for an early 1-0 advantage. Bolanos’ tally was his team-leading seventh of the campaign.

The tide was stemmed, though, on a freak play in the 23rd minute. Sophomore goalkeeper Keegan Meyer came out to challenge a shot attempt from Liberty’s (11-6-1) Nico Bellarde, but was struck in the face by the ball. Meyer was forced to leave the game due to the injury for the remainder of the half, but did return after halftime.

In the interim, Liberty turned on the attack and netted the tying marker in the 32nd minute. Off a counter attack, the Flames’ Matthew Zaczyk threaded a pass to Kevin Mendoza, who slipped it underneath redshirt-sophomore Pat Fallon to even the match at 1-1.

However, High Point was quickly able to respond with two goals in the following six-plus minutes, both from sophomore Connor Cesar. In the 36th minute, senior Jonathan Ware sent a long arcing pass down the right flank that Cesar corralled and controlled into a 1 v. 1 matchup with the keeper. After forcing Knoebel’s hand, Cesar popped it over the keeper and into the back of the net for a 2-1 lead.

Less than three minutes later, Cesar was in the right spot for the insurance tally. Redshirt-sophomore Bana Ganidekam slid a pass to the top of the penalty area, which Cesar struck high and to the top right corner to increase the advantage to 3-1. It marked the first career multi-goal contest for Cesar, who now has registered four goals on the season.

Physicality was prevalent throughout the contest, but never more so than in the 53rd minute when Mendoza was issued a straight red card for an aggressive challenge directly behind a HPU player in the midfield.

A man to the good, High Point was able to corral the possession and milk the clock away. The Flames posted just one shot in the second half, a shot off the post from Rigo Rojas in the 77th minute.

High Point finished with a 14-5 superiority in shots, including 5-2 in on-target attempts. Meyer made one save in 68 minutes in net and was credited with his 10th victory of the season.

The Panthers now turn their attention to the Big South Championship against No. 6 seed Presbyterian on Sunday. The Blue Hose drew 0-0 with No. 2 seed Radford before advancing on penalty kicks. In the regular season matchup, HPU scored with 2.4 seconds remaining to win 1-0 and claim the Big South regular season title.

Kickoff from Vert Stadium is scheduled for 2 p.m. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.