Garner’s first six matches of the boys soccer season couldn’t have foretold the eventual surge the Trojans would enjoy once action started in the Greater Neuse River Conference.
The Trojans dropped each of those contests – some in lopsided fashion, albeit against lofty competition. And with a combined six freshmen or sophomores sometimes on the field at the same time, Garner coach Ben Bondurant was beginning to wonder if the 2016 campaign might be a write-off for his program.
But aside from a pair of blips against East Wake, the Trojans have been dominant in the GNRC, including a 2-0 road victory at Clayton on Wednesday as both clubs resumed their respective schedules after a one-week layoff due to the recent poor weather.
“I believe that the better the competition you play, the better you get,” Bondurant said. “When you play the best, you see what you need to work on, and you learn how to overcome adversity. We also learned how strong these kids are. How we have come back and played is pretty impressive.”
Never miss a local story.
Garner’s 9-8 overall record won’t catch the attention of many foes, but the Trojans are 8-2 in the GNRC, which leaves then one-half game behind league leader Knightdale with four contests remaining in the regular season. Garner, which had already topped Knightdale this fall, will tangle with the Knights next Monday on the road with first place at stake in the league.
Clayton, the defending conference champion, dropped to 8-10 overall and 5-4 in the GNRC. After last season’s title run, the Comets are in a bit of a rebuilding phase under coach John Asmussen.
After a tactical, cautious beginning by both squads, Garner broke through with 16:27 remaining in the first half thanks to a second-chance goal from Juan Santana, who received a ball in the box but saw his first attempt be stopped. However, the ball went right back on to Santana’s foot, and he made no mistake with his second-chance opportunity that gave the Trojans the lead for good.
“I got a nice through ball from (teammate Jason Gonzalez) and hit it,” Santana said. “The rebound came right back to me and I was able to get it that time. I think we did pretty well – we are playing as a team right now.’’
The Trojans picked up the clincher with 23:12 remaining in the contest thanks to a slick move and finish in the box from Gonzalez.
THREE TO KNOW
Lane Perkinson, Garner: Coming into the season, Perkinson wasn’t sure the role he would play this fall with the Trojans at the keeper position. But the sophomore’s playing time has increased as the campaign has gone on, and he has responded, including Wednesday’s shutout effort. Perkinson used an alert move to stifle a potential Clayton breakaway in the first half, and he made a stop on a direct kick from about 10 yards out in the closing minutes to help preserve the decision. He finished with seven saves.
“It’s pretty good that we were 0-6 at one point and are now 9-8,” Perkinson said. “We were playing some of the best teams in the state – teams like Broughton, Millbrook and Holly Springs. We have just been able to pick it up.”
Juan Santana, Garner: Santana’s eventual game-winner resembled his team’s overall season – it was achieved through hard work and patience. The tally was Santana’s third of the campaign.
Caleb Rodgers, Clayton: One of only four senior starters for the Comets, Rodgers, a team captain, has battled injuries this fall, but has still been effective in the midfield position. He helped create several Comets’ chances Wednesday, but Asmussen’s crew continues to struggle with finding the back of the net. Clayton has scored one goal of less in nine outings in 2016.
“Caleb has come back from injuries and has been playing his heart out,’’ Asmussen said. “I thought he controlled the field and did everything he could for us.’’
OUT OF BOUNDS
Despite Garner’s recent success, the Trojans have been unable to find the recipe to defeat league rival East Wake. That inability currently has Garner in second place in the GNRC, though the Trojans have already defeated league leader Knightdale. Garner fell 2-1 to the Warriors on Sept. 12 and also dropped the rematch by a 4-0 margin last week in Wendell.
“The first time we played East Wake, we just didn’t get lucky,” Perkinson said. “The second time, they scored on us early and we just weren’t ourselves after that.”
Said Santana: “We just got really frustrated.’’
Coincidentally, East Wake has just three conference victories to date.
“It just shows you that anybody can beat anybody in the GNRC,’’ Bondurant said. “In the second game, it was our third game in three days, which is a lot of ask of kids. But I’m not making excuses -- (East Wake) just went out and beat us.’’
THEY SAID IT
“It’s just inconsistency for us right now,” Asmussen said. “We are going through some growing pains. We had some good chances (versus Garner) but it all comes down to finishing. We had plenty of opportunities to to get a result, and it didn’t happen. That’s an inherent trait of a young team.”