Below the scoreboard at Armstrong-Hill Stadium is a sign reading, “The Theater of Dreams.”
On Wednesday night, the dream continued for the Cinderella Middle Creek Mustangs, while it ended abruptly for the Northern Durham Knights.
The Mustangs advanced to the fourth round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys soccer playoffs for the first time in school history, bouncing Northern 2-1.
Middle Creek (13-8-5) has won eight games in a row – after a six-game winless streak – and has won all three playoff games against higher-seeded teams on the road.
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“Every game, we just get on the bus, and we know what we’ve got to do,” said Mustang midfielder Tyler Conrad, who scored the first goal. “We just take care of business on the field.”
Next up for Middle Creek is No. 3 Broughton, on the road again. How long can the run last for the No. 23 seeded Mustangs?
“We can go all the way,” Conrad said. “This is the first time in school history, so what a run to make. We’re not stopping.”
That was the attitude four Knights’ seniors had four years ago. Charles Singletary, George Bukenya, Francisco Guerrero and Justin Shoe told coach Michael Tetreault that Northern would become a soccer power, even though the Knights hadn’t gotten past the first round of the state playoffs.
“Four years ago, they decided to have the ridiculous idea that a team that hasn’t won a league title since the invention of our league, and a team that hasn’t advanced out of the first round of the playoffs this century – they said, ‘Coach, we’re going to end up on top,’ ” Tetreault said. “I tried to beat some reality in them and say, ‘Guys, we’ve never done that.’ They said, ‘The only problem with never is just hasn’t happened yet.’ ”
No. 15 seed Northern (14-6-1) had its opportunities Wednesday. After Conrad’s first-half goal – a header off a terrific throw-in from Chris Wallace – T.J. Milby headed the ball past Mustang keeper Matt Wilder.
But the Knights were ruled to have interfered with Wilder, and the goal didn’t count.
“I thought that was a legit goal,” said Tetreault, a former keeper. “The keeper went up, he had it in his hands and he came down. I thought he just misplayed it.”
Northern kept up the pressure in the second half, getting several good scoring chances. But Middle Creek’s defense was up to the challenge, with Colin Swales, Brad Van Hulst, Colin Frie and Connor Swales each making good plays to thwart the Knight offense.
“Our midfield works really hard to help screen our back four,” Mustangs coach Ed Wasdell said. “The back four have really improved over this run we’ve been having. They communicate well, they drop off well. Even when (opponents) get behind, we pick players up and are able to cut out crosses. Our keeper is playing really well right now, too.”
In the 73rd minute, John Eaves broke free for Middle Creek and made a cross pass to Caleb O’Brien, who put in the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
Jesus Rodriguez scored in the 79th minute for Northern, but after a furious final 90 seconds, the Knights’ season ended.
“Their effort tonight, their effort in the playoffs, the only word I have is humbling,” Tetreault said of his seniors, his voice filling with emotion. “We’re not going to miss them, because what they gave us is going to live on in the guys who come after them. Each senior left a piece of himself on the field, in the team room. They’re going to be here as long as we’re here.”
Middle Creek has no intention of going anywhere, either.
“We’re playing pretty well right now,” Wasdell said. “Just team effort. I guess we’re road warriors.”