EAST RIVER —
It is soccer 24/7 at the Aiello household.
Alex Aiello would have it no other way.
“We talk about it pretty much all the time when we are home,” said Aiello, a sophomore, and the son of Graham boys soccer coach George Aiello. “It is pretty much all we talk about at home.”
They had plenty to talk about on Monday night after Aiello scored two goals to lead the G-Men to a 3-0 Region 2A-West quarterfinal win over Virginia High on Monday afternoon at the East River Soccer Complex.
“It is different. There is a lot more pressure on me, I feel a lot more pressure just because he is my coach and my dad. ” said Alex, who enjoys looking to the sidelines after a goal to see his father beeming with joy. “It motivates me, I feel like I have made him proud, it just feels really good.”
Graham (15-4) would like to continue those good feelings on Wednesday when the G-Men play James River, with the winner earning not only a berth in the regional finals, but also a spot in the Group 2A state tournament next week, something the G-Men have never done.
“We have been to that semifinal game before and we just haven’t finished,” George Aiello said. “The boys know there is a lot of pressure to finish so they can be the first team to go to states so that is what we are going to work hard on.
“They want it, they want it badly. They want to be the first team to say they went to states from Graham High School and we have a great shot to win states.”
Getting there must come first for the G-Men, which secured one of many goals last week, claiming the Southern Empire Confer-ence (Conference 39) championship.
“It just feels great, it feels like we could be the best team to ever come through the high school,” Alex Aiello said. “It is unbelievable, we have worked really hard for it, in fact we deserve it.
“We deserve it from how hard we have worked, the long practices where it feels like we are a track team just running and all the pushups, it just feels like it is paying off.”
Few have worked harder than Aiello, whose father, George, gets tears in his eyes when speaking of how his son has worked to improve on the pitch.
“Alex has worked hard, I have pushed him hard and he has responded and I am proud of what he has done,” George Aiello said. “Here in the last couple of games he has really come to life, I would say in the last four or five games he is probably averaging two goals a game.
“He definitely works hard, he has got a good work ethic too and a lot of speed that helps.”
After a shaking start for the G-Men, Graham settled down and took a 1-0 lead into the break on an off-balanced shot by Aiello while actually falling to the ground. He was able to sneak it past Virginia High goalkeeper Matthew Kilby at the 10:46 mark of the opening half.
“I didn’t like how we came out, we came out pretty flat and we built the intensity as the game went on so I am encouraged by that,” George said. “I felt like we really poured it on in the second half.
“These boys have worked so hard during the season on their physical fitness and you could tell by the end of the game that we definitely had the advantage. I am proud of that and I am proud of the fact that we finished.”
That 1-0 lead was nice, but Alex Aiello said the G-Men tried to not even notice the 1 on their side of the scoreboard.
“We go back in the second half thinking it is 0-0,” Alex said. “Actually it doesn’t matter, we just go out there and win the next half.”
“Our goal is to just try and get the lead early, get the other team down and frustrated and we try and stay positive,” added George. “Encourage, not discourage, we have got a lot of belief in that. If we play like that I think we are going to do well.”
They did just that after the break, going up 2-0 just 7:05 into the second half on an unassisted goal by fellow sophomore Nathan Figueroa, and added a third goal by Aiello off a nifty header to the left of the net by Samuel Stowers with 11:09 left in the game.
“It just feels really good, it is hard to describe how it feels,” said Alex, on his recent spurt of goals. “It is just a great feeling that all the hard work has paid off, all the time I have spent running in practice and practicing in my driveway has just really paid off.”
That was more than enough for the G-Men. The Bearcats (10-6-3) had few scoring opportunities from its scoring leaders, which included sophomore Evan Harr and senior leader and four-year starter Gray Mumpower, who will kick footballs for the reborn East Tennessee State football team in the fall.
“They got a couple of goal lead and they set all of their guys back on defense, which is smart,” said Virginia High head coach Hunter Meade, whose Bearcats had at least two shots that clanked off the goalposts. “They dropped back a couple of good players and they set back and played good defense and still managed to get a third goal on us.
“They outworked us the second half. The first half was more even, we had a post shot and we had another post shot, it could have been a little bit different story, but they got the win and we didn’t...
“There are only so many excuses you can come up with, they put away their chances and we didn’t.”
That would prove to be plenty for the G-Men, which had 19 shots on goal to 14 for the Bearcats, with Graham freshman goalkeeper Brody Dawson having three saves in goal, all after the break. Morgan Koen, Jon Figureroa, Will Olive, Nick Shoemaker and Jake Metcalfe were just some of the defensive stalwarts in the win.
“Defense did a great job, Brody Dawson, my goal, he is a true freshman and it is great that he got a shutout in a big game like this so that is going to build his confidence,” said George Aiello.
Seventeen of Graham’s roster of 25 are freshmen or sophomores, including Aiello, whose father is thrilled to have the unique opportunity to serve as his son’s coach at the high school level.
“It is pretty cool for me, I definitely enjoy watching him play well, he has come a long way,” George said. “I am definitely proud of what he has been able to do. He is just a sophomore so he has got two more years ahead of him. I think he is going to keep on getting better.”
Up next for Graham is an opportunity to reach a point the program has never reached before, a prospect that brings a smile to Coach Aiello.
“It goes back to what Graham stands for and that is that pride and I think there is going to be a lot of pride if we can get to that next step and get to the state tournament,” George said. “The boys will be filled with pride, I know the school will be proud of what the boys have accomplished.
“It is not an easy road to get there and these boys have battled so far so we are looking forward to a game on Wednesday and hopefully beating whoever we play.”
EAST RIVER —
It is soccer 24/7 at the Aiello household.
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