The dark blue sky lightened by the minute Thursday morning as North Raleigh Christian’s soccer team took to the dew-covered field for a 7 a.m. practice.
Students had the day off from school, but the Knights were on campus bright and early as they prepared to defend their N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A title.
North Raleigh (12-5-1), a No. 4 seed, secured a bye for the state tournament’s first round and was set to host the winner between No. 5 Providence Day and No. 12 Hickory Grove on Tuesday.
But defending a title is never easy, said Knights coach Ed Pinon, and the team has worked throughout the year to get ready.
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“I think it’s been a challenge since day one,” Pinon said. “I think there’s always an element of complacency when you’ve won it and you’re just sort of trying to figure your way through things to try to do it again.
“Early on I just felt like we were inconsistent, and we started to get better throughout the season, but there was just still some times where we just weren’t settled in our play. We were winning games, but still, it’s got to be better. We’ve got to play better, and we had some wake-up calls. We lost to Cary (Academy) and we lost to Ravenscroft, and that really woke us up and got us focused. We had a couple of good games before this past Tuesday’s game. We did well and started to gain some momentum, but Tuesday was a disappointment.”
North Raleigh ended its regular season Tuesday with a 3-0 loss at Wesleyan, an undefeated No. 1 seed the Knights could face in the state semifinals at the Cannon School Friday should both teams advance.
The Knights roster boasts nine seniors and a host of players who played a role in last year’s championship run.
Senior Nathan Pike, who scored two goals in the 2013 title game, said this year’s team is as good as, if not better, than last year’s.
“(The seniors’) experience definitely helps our team overall,” Pike said. “We can lead each other and a lot of us have been playing together for years now and we have a special connection, and just knowing that we’ve been there before and we know how to do it is definitely a confidence booster.”
Freshman William Welch agreed, adding that the Knights just need to focus and take it one game at a time.
“I still believe in these guys,” Pinon said. “We’ve got a good group, a good core and some good role players. Looking at the field, there’s some very good teams, but I would still say that we’re in the middle of it and hopefully have a good opportunity to try to win it again.”
The 3A state finals are scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Cannon School.
St. David’s, a No. 4 seed in the NCISAA 2A tournament, will host the 2A semifinals and finals on Friday and Saturday.