CHAPEL HILL — As nearly perennial playoff opponents, East Chapel Hill coach Austin Collins made sure his players knew going into Saturday’s second-round matchup that Apex was the team the Wildcats had to prove themselves against.
Last year, in the same round, East Chapel Hill (15-1-2) had its season ended by the Cougars. This year, the Wildcats ended Apex’s with a 1-0 victory, handing the Cougars (16-4-1) their first loss in 11 games.
“It was a huge motivator because that game and this game, we’ve only lost one game, to Chapel Hill,” Collins said. “I can’t think of a better motivator than knowing they were the last team to knock us off. We’d beaten Chapel Hill this year, but we hadn’t beaten Apex, and these guys wanted to prove to themselves that they could beat them.”
East Chapel Hill began aggressively, pressing forward and making good use of runs down the right side. Zach Lee, a junior forward for the Wildcats, dribbled deep into Apex territory a number of times, earning free kicks that led to dangerous crosses.
The Cougars found themselves on their heels for the majority of the first half. The referees whistled Apex for 12 fouls and one card to East Chapel Hill’s eight fouls. Apex only managed two shots on goal, and neither made Wildcat goalkeeper Jake Hilkey break a sweat.
In the 38th minute, the Wildcats were awarded a free kick roughly 35 yards from goal, on the right side of the field near their own bench. Louis Levin stepped up and fired a cross directly in front of the goal. Senior defender Luka Vujaskovic found the ball with his head and knocked it into the lower right corner of the goal.
“They did come out with a little bit more energy,” Apex coach Kevin Todd said. “We allowed some of the calls to get to us. It was something where we had to rise up, respect the game and play a little better.”
His team’s complexion changed entirely in the second half, though. The Cougars made substitutions, avoided fouling and recorded five shots before the Wildcats managed their first.
Perhaps Apex’s best chance of the night came when forward Austin Brackfield received a long cross and found himself with the ball at his feet near the penalty spot, staring East Chapel Hill’s second-half goalkeeper Matt Cocca in the face. The Wildcat faithful clamored for offsides, but the linesman’s flag stayed down.
To their relief and Apex’s dismay, Brackfield’s shot, about waist-high and to the right, was saved and caught by a diving Cocca.
The Wildcats slowly turned the momentum back in their direction, and as time wound down, it seemed as though they were seeking another goal. East Chapel Hill also managed to stifle each of Apex’s increasingly frantic forays down the field.
“They showed a lot of resiliency in the second half, quite a bit different from the way we played the first half,” Todd said of his team. “It was a quality game against a good team, but it’s tougher here at the end, obviously. It’s tough for the seniors. It’s really tough for them.”