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Grizzlies get rematch in NAIA tournament opener

Members of the Georgia Gwinnett College soccer team celebrate with the trophy after beating the Ashford Saints 3-0 on last weekend to win the American of Independent Institutions championship. (File)

Members of the Georgia Gwinnett College soccer team celebrate with the trophy after beating the Ashford Saints 3-0 on last weekend to win the American of Independent Institutions championship. (File)

It’s a rematch, but it’s a rematch after months have elapsed and neither team is the same as it was at the end of August.

The Georgia Gwinnett College men’s soccer team gets a chance to avenge a loss to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and this time the stakes are much higher.

The Grizzles bussed to Daytona, Fla., on Thursday in preparation for the opening round of the NAIA tournament. They play Embry-Riddle at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

GGC lost 2-0 to Embry-Riddle in their third game of the season. Since then, the Grizzles have gone 13-3 and are riding a program-best eight-game winning streak.

“You’ve got to shift gears from celebration,” head coach Steve DeCou said just a few days after GGC dominated Ashford University in the Association of Independent Institutions’ championship game. “That was not the destination.”

DeCou has been coaching for 14 years and this season dealt with a record number of injuries. Four starters missed significant time, but the bright side is the rest of the team stepped up in their place.

Rene Enang had a goal and an assist in the first game of the AII tournament and then stood tall at center back for the championship match. Johan Sanchez has played wherever he was asked as well. Dacula grad Juan Giraldo took four years off after playing at Georgia State and has been a big contributor to the Grizzlies’ success. Freshman Callum Mordey was one of the injured, missing four weeks after a knee scope, but is back in form now.

“We made some tactical adjustments and I think we’ve found what works best for us,” DeCou said. “As a group, they’ve really improved.

Despite the changes, one thing has remained the same since DeCou talked about his team in the preseason.

“I still think we are a lot more athletic than most teams,” DeCou said. “One of the things we value is speed and we’ve got a lot of physical speed. One of our other strengths has been adaptability. I wasn’t expecting that.

“And what they’ve really showed is they love the big game. We’ve really played well when it mattered the most.”

Embry-Riddle (13-3) was the final at-large selection in the 32-team field and are ranked 13th in the nation. The Eagles are making their ninth appearance in the tournament, returning after a one-year absence.

“They’ve scored close to 50 goals so they’ve been very good in their attack,” DeCou said. “They’re a dangerous team. But we weren’t at our best that night (in August). You don’t usually get a chance to right a wrong in the same season.”

The winner of Saturday’s contest will advance to the national championship site in Montgomery, Ala., Dec. 2-7, along with the other 15 opening round winners.