It seemed like it was only a matter of time before the West Johnston attack would break through for a goal Thursday night as the Wildcats hosted rival Cleveland in an early-season non-conference affair.
Flagged for being offside half a dozen times in the first half alone, West Johnston finally solved the Rams’ offside trap late in the opening period to earn a 3-1 victory over its nearby rival.
Robin Pollard timed two of her runs perfectly and collected a pair of through-balls in the final 10 minutes of the first half and cashed in with two goals to help the Wildcats improve to 2-0 on the season.
A night after opening up play in the Greater Neuse River Conference with a resounding 9-0 win over Knightdale, West Johnston, though dominating possession, was held scoreless for 30 minutes thanks to an organized Cleveland back line and six Wildcat offside calls.
“I thought our defense and my goalkeeper had an awesome game,” Cleveland coach Marissa DiMarco said. “It’s just, when you’re keeping the ball, you’re bound to score. We just need to learn to hold it up top and in the midfield more.”
In the 33rd minute, however, MacKenzie Barber fed Pollard a ball that the sophomore could run onto and Pollard easily converted the chance into a goal.
Four minutes later, Pollard again beat the defense and the linesman’s flag stayed down as she managed to get the ball past the Rams’ Katelyn Lowery for a 2-0 lead.
“Cleveland’s defense was smart,” West Johnston coach Reid Byrd said. “Tonight, they were paying attention to our offense. I think it was more of a smart defense than it was our offense not paying attention.”
The Rams showed some fight early in the second half with Cassidy McNierney causing all sorts of problems for the Wildcats, forcing two point blank saves from Hannah Stephenson in the opening minutes.
On Cleveland’s fourth corner kick of the second half, Amaya Wall chased the ball down after it was directed outside of the box. Wall then put a cross in front of the goal that found Annika Knott and the sophomore forward nudged the ball past Stephenson to cut West Johnston’s lead in half.
McNierney and Hannah Evans began to find creases in the attacking third and both forced Stephenson into key saves and clearances.
With the Rams looking poised for the equalizer, the Wildcats instead abruptly put the game out of reach when Mallory Barton was brought down in the penalty box and converted the subsequent penalty kick with 13:07 remaining in the half.
“I really thought we had the momentum,” said DiMarco. “Tonight, we didn’t give up and I’m proud of my girls for that. They played all 80 minutes; we just need to finish when we get our opportunities.”
Lowery finished the night with nine saves for Cleveland (0-3) and her counterpart, Stephenson, had four big saves of her own as well as several clearances of Cleveland long balls aimed at the speedy McNierney.
For West Johnston, it may just be a matter of time for a new group to connect and fix the little things that need taken care of in order for the Wildcats realize their true potential this season.
“We lost the bulk of our starters last year to seniors so it’s kind of a rebuilding year,” said Byrd. “We’ve got a lot of good talent that hasn’t played together before so it’s more or less figuring out the chemistry.”