GREENVILLE – There’s a bond between James Kasak and Elijah Knopp — a bond forged by playing together for so many years.
And with that “psychic connection,” you didn’t need a soothsayer to predict what would happen Wednesday in Riverheads’ Region 1A East boys soccer semifinals against Mathews.
Kasak and Knopp accounted for all of the Gladiators’ goals as they advanced to the region final and secured a spot in the Group 1A playoffs with a 9-2 dismantling of the Blue Devils at Riverheads High School.
The top-seeded Red Pride, who improved to 19-0, will host second-seeded Northampton, the winner of Wednesday’s other region semifinal, at 3 p.m. Saturday.
The Kasak-Knopp connection was evident from the first minute of the game. Knopp scored off an assist from Kasak 33 seconds into the game, the first of three goals for the senior. Kasak, who assisted on all three of Knopp’s goals, finished with six goals, getting assists from Knopp on four of them.
For Kasak and Knopp, it’s just something they’re used to.
“We’ve played together for so long on travel teams that it works,” said the Virginia Tech-bound Kasak. “We just have a connection.”
For Knopp, it’s about knowing where his teammate is on the pitch.
“I know where James is before I get the ball,” he said, and when I pick my head up, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. He’s making the kind of run I knew he’d make.”
And for Gladiators head coach Scott Harrison, between high school and club games, it’s something he’s witnessed countless times.
“The purpose of of a team practicing together is learn each other’s tendencies, how they run and how they move,” he said. “[Kasak and Knopp] play together year-round , so it’s very easy for them to anticipate when the other one is going to be.”
Kasak got his first goal at the 6:40 mark. He settled a pass in the box from Knopp and nudged it past the Mathews keeper to make it 2-0.
Six minutes later, they combined for another goal, with Knopp converting the assist from Kasak to make it 3-0, and the Gladiators seemed to rolling.
But the Blue Devils (12-5) changed things up after losing a player due to a yellow card and put the Gladiators on their heels for a time. A goal by Stuart Anderson in the 31st minute cut the deficit to 3-1.
“They got more aggressive and that kind of shocked us,” Kasak said. “We slowed down and started playing a little sloppier, but we knew what we had to do late in the first half.
What Kasak did was score his second and third goals in less than two minutes to push Riverheads’ lead to 5-1. Knopp assisted on the scores, which came at the 35:20 and 37:00 marks.
“[Mathews] changed formations,” Harrison said. “They used a ‘false nine’ [a second forward] and we weren’t reading him. It’s like having two forwards, but one sits back and that kind of lulled us. So I had my defensive mid (Ben Plummer) hold longer and had my outside mids drop back quicker so we didn’t leave our flank side open.”
After trading goals in the first seven minutes of the second half to make it 6-2, Kasak broke Mathews’ back in the 53rd minute with a spectacular goal. He sprinted with the ball down the right side, then cut to the center, deked the keeper and sent it into the goal for a 6-2 lead.
After that, Knopp added his third goal in the 56 minute and Kasak capped the scoring with an unassisted goal in the 69th minute.