The Ron Benson era could have come to an end for Chapel Hill soccer on Wednesday night.
But the Tigers girls just wouldn’t let it happen.
Sofie Nielsen and Frances Reuland each scored a first-half goal and the lead held, as the visiting Tigers topped Big Eight rival and defending state champion Cardinal Gibbons 2-1 in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs.
The Tigers improved to 20-1 heading into their fourth-round game at Swansboro, while Gibbons ended its season at 21-2-2.
The teams had tied for the championship of the Big Eight with each team winning their regular-season matchup at home, 1-0, so there was no reason to expect anything but a classic on Wednesday on the Crusaders’ field turf.
“My coaches are trying to tell me this is all special, but I’m just taking them one at a time,” said Benson (with a career record of 392-155-41), who has been the Tigers girls’ and boys’ coach since 1984 and has been the N.C. Soccer Coaches Association Coach of the Year three times. Benson lacks one thing, a state title, as he coaches his final tournament.
“I thought after the first 10 minutes both sides played well. We were a little tight, but we did what we had to do and were just a little better.”
Gibbons coach Michele Miller said her team fought hard in trying to come back in a high-level contest.
“The first goal was so early that we felt like we had plenty of time,” Miller said. “It’s unfortunate that that happened, but you just have to keep playing.
“It was a well-played game. I’ve been coaching for a few years, but (Benson) is a legend, and I wish them a lot of luck.”
Nielsen scored from Laura Sullivan from about 3 yards out just three minutes into the game, coming out of a scrum in the box following a corner kick.
“It was up at the corner, and I think Mia (Spencer) hit the post,” the junior Nielsen said of the setup for her goal. “And then Laura hit it back to me in the perfect spot.
“It’s always good to get a goal. Sometimes it’s dangerous to get one so early because a team might tend to slack off. Fortunately we didn’t.”
Reuland doubled the Tigers’ lead in the 33rd minute as she took a pass from Alex Kimball, scooting the ball through Haley Glaser for the marker. Both Reuland and Kimball will play for Anson Dorrance’s program at North Carolina next season.
“ ‘A.K.’ (Kimball) was coming down the side and I always try to be in the middle to support her,” Reuland explained of the sequence leading to her goal. “She laid it to me and I just shot it to the far post. It wasn’t that powerful, but it went in. You can’t score if you don’t shoot. It was a lucky spin, but our coaches tell us hard work makes luck.
“We won the best of three, and two years ago they beat us in the playoffs the same way. We’re doing this for (Benson), to send him out as a state champion.”
The 2-0 halftime lead looked comfortable before Morgan Reid halved it for the Crusaders in the 55th minute, rocketing a left-foot blast from the top of the box.
“It’s always a good game and a great rivalry,” said the right-hander Reid, who is headed to Duke next season. “It was a tough way to lose with two unfortunate goals, but we had a great effort in the second half. It just wasn’t quite enough. We gave it all we could and that’s all you could ask for.”