McIntosh (22-0), the nation’s No. 1 team from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, scored early and often, starting with an easy finish by Carson Brooks after an impressive series of passes just 13 minutes into the game.
Five minutes later, McIntosh again swarmed the Pope 18-yard box, and after an initial shot bounced off of the goalpost, McIntosh captain Adam Sheikali buried the ball in the bottom-left corner of the net from 16 yards out for a 2-0 lead.
“We knew how they played” Pope coach Rich Groeneveld said. “No one has been able to stop them all year long. They’ve been running all over everybody. We did well at defending set pieces — that’s where they’re really dangerous — but we missed a few things here and there and made some mistakes.”
Brooks nearly scored his second goal of the night in the 27th minute of the first half when he fired a shot off of the crossbar from outside of the box.
But with 10 minutes remaining before halftime, Brooks and Sheikali worked together to put the game beyond any doubt. Brooks laced a perfect ball through the Pope defense to send Sheikali in alone, and the McIntosh junior scored his second goal of the night, lobbing the ball over goalkeeper Sean Hatcher.
Holding a 3-0 lead, McIntosh played a more conservative game in the second half, wrapping up a berth in the state championship game against Houston County.
The game featured plenty of physical play, with each team accumulating two yellow cards, but McIntosh held its full composure throughout the second half, only yielding two shots on goal.
Despite the tough loss, Groeneveld wants to make the season Pope (14-6-1) had, with the Region 7AAAAA championship, a regular occurrence.
“We want to raise the standard every year,” he said. “When I got (to Pope), we hadn’t made the playoffs in a few years. Now, we’ve made it a few years in a row, and now we’re starting to shake things up when we get into the postseason, so we’re going to keep working hard to keep the standard high.”
Wednesday’s game was the last one for 10 Pope seniors, and Groeneveld took time to reflect on their value to the program.
“I love coaching these boys. They’re good guys,” he said. “They care about the game and they love to play. Pope is a great place to be. The kids at this school are good kids.”