Gavin Raff sectional

Gavin Raff jumps to punch a ball away in the second half Wednesday night.

INDIANAPOLIS - It wasn't a thing of beauty.

But the top-ranked Zionsville boys soccer team found a way to advance without their 'A' game Wednesday night, topping No. 14 Carmel 2-1 to advance to the sectional final.

"We knew Carmel was a really good squad," Zionsville head coach Rob Jordan said. "They struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year, but were really playing well. They gave us everything they had tonight and we were able to weather the storm. It was a little bend but don't break, but we got the job done."

The Eagles are the favorites to repeat as sectional champions, but Jordan said everyone on the team knows that nothing is a given, especially in a sectional as tough as Zionsville's.

Four of the six teams are ranked in the top-20, including three in the top-15 and two in the top-4.

"Everyone says their sectional is the hardest, but I really don't think there is any sectional tougher than ours," Jordan said. "Every game and every team is tough. Carmel and North Central are two incredibly talented teams and North Central is rolling right now. Any team we play is going to be a tough opponent."

Jordan said that one thing that has helped his team prepare for games like Wednesday and in the future, is their schedule.

Of the 16 games they played, seven were against teams ranked in the final polls and another four were ranked at some point in the season.

Jordan said those experiences, plus those gained last year en route to the state finals help in tough situations.

"With our schedule and playing in the HCC, it has really helped us," Jordan said. "We are playing some great teams and have been able to experience playing against some different styles. We have had games where we haven't had the success like we normally do. Carmel did that tonight, we weren't able to knock it around like we normally do. But when that happens, it helps to have that experience and it was pure will tonight."

The Eagles took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Alex Carr in the opening minutes of the game, assisted by Ben Weidner.

Carmel tied the game later in the first half however on a penalty kick, keeping the score 1-1 at the half.

It was just the second time all season the Eagles haven't led at the half.

The tie didn't last long into the second half, as the Eagles were awarded a penalty of their own, and Chris Freeman slotted it in to give the Eagles the lead for good.

Jordan said he loved the effort at the start of the second half, especially leading up to the PK.

"That was really the key for us, the first 10 minutes of each half," Jordan said. "We played really well at the start of each half. That was the kind of pressure we wanted, we wanted to push and be aggressive. Lorenzo Martinez especially leading up to the penalty kick - he made a great effort just to get to the ball, then fired a shot that they had to stick their arm out and stop. It was a big hustle play and led to the goal."

That goal stood up and now the Eagles will play for the sectional title at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at Pike.

The Panthers are 16-2-2 and have won nine straight heading into the sectional final.

"Possession is going to be key for us," Jordan said. "Carmel took us out of that today. North Central is a good, fast, aggressive team. We have to be able to hunker down defensively, move the ball and attack the gaps in their defense. When we possess the ball the way we are capable of, we are tough to beat."

Will Willems is the Sports Editor of the Zionsville Times Sentinel and Lebanon Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Willems.

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