CARY — When you haven’t lost a game in more than a calendar year, you become the measuring stick.
The Panther Creek girls’ soccer team remained a head above the rest Wednesday night with a 3-0 win against visiting West Johnston in a highly anticipated matchup in the third round of the NCHSAA Class 4A playoffs.
The Catamounts (21-0-1) will face East Chapel Hill on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
West Johnston entered the game with a 21-1-2 record but proved little match for top-seeded Panther Creek. The Catamounts dominated the possession in the first half and peppered Wildcats goalkeeper Hannah Stephenson with 14 shots.
“The hardest thing we had to deal with was their speed,” West Johnston coach Reid Byrd said. “We weren’t expecting that much speed to start out the game and they caught us off guard and got ahead.”
“For us all year it’s pretty much been that way as far as attacking from that center-midfield position, and everything’s dictated off of that,” Panther Creek coach David Grant said. “We knew that balls over the top weren’t going to work and we knew that balls on the ground, if we were to stay wide enough up top, would ultimately be successful.”
The Catamounts finally broke through in the 16th minute when Justine James picked up a midfield pass and carried in from the right angle. Her shot was blocked away by a sprawled-out Stephenson, but the rebound settled softly in front where Alex Pagano touched it through.
In the 31st minute, another midfield ball was threaded into space behind the Wildcats defenders. James again caught up to it and this time finished it herself to give Panther Creek a 2-0 halftime advantage.
With one minute to play in the half, a pivotal play took place. West Johnston starting defender Emily Rentz was yellow-carded for a hard foul, earning her second yellow card of the half. The resulting red card ejection meant the Wildcats had to play the rest of the match down one player.
As if Panther Creek isn’t tough enough to beat, the Wildcats were now spotting the Catamounts two goals and a player for the final 40 minutes.
“To play the second half with a man down, I was pretty impressed with our girls’ effort,” Byrd said. “We had a lot of girls step up. Our two outside midfielders and Madison (Covey) in the middle was pretty much by herself in the second half, so they all stepped it up and we really got some good runs in the second half, even more than in the first which surprised me a lot.”
“Playing against 10 is ultimately probably harder than playing 11-on-11 at times because they’re that much more focused,” Grant said. “It really didn’t change much. We just went forward as if we were 11 against 11.”
Despite being shorthanded, West Johnston appeared to get on the scoreboard just three minutes into the second half when Robin Pollard cleaned up a loose ball following a corner kick. But the goal was disallowed because of a handball.
Panther Creek tacked on an insurance goal 10 minutes later when Pagano drilled home a hard shot from the high slot. The win did not come without a loss though, as just 30 seconds after Pagano’s goal, Panther Creek junior midfielder Courtney Cash went down with a leg injury and did not return.
The is the furthest Panther Creek has advanced in the state tournament and Grant expects East Chapel Hill to be possibly the toughest opponent the Catamounts have played all season.