Senior night, a match against their chief rival and an opportunity to clinch the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference regular season boys soccer championship.
Certainly, the Knightdale Knights had plenty to play for during Wednesday’s home showdown against East Wake.
But so did the Warriors, who continued their second-half surge to the campaign – and spoiled Knightdale’s party in the process – with a 2-1 victory in a spirited, intense match.
East Wake, which wasn’t mentioned among the potential GNRC hierarchy in the preseason, has been the league’s surprise squad in 2016. The Warriors are now 11-6-2 overall and 7-2 in the conference, and coach Jon Hasbrouck’s club still has a chance to ascend to a possible second-place finish with three matches remaining, thanks in part to a down-the-stretch mark of 7-1-2 after a slow start.
Knightdale, now 13-5-3 and 10-2-1, still controls its GNRC fate and can wrap up the title with a victory Monday at West Johnston.
The Knights would have loved to finish things off Wednesday as part of an 11-player senior night, but East Wake had other ideas.
As the contest progressed, and East Wake pushed to a 2-0 advantage, the Knightdale side became increasingly frustrated with the officiating, and tensions boiled over after a call near midfield with 25:13 remaining in the second half.
Knights’ head coach Aaron Steele received a double-yellow disqualification for his ensuing protest, and assistant coach Jeremiah Retzlaff was handed a red-card ejection.
Both coaches left the facility, and Knightdale athletic director Chad Smothers took over as head coach for the remainder of the contest.
Smothers’ brief stint in charge of the program was a wild ride as the Knights, motivated by the departure of their coaches, put together a strong closing stretch and came to within one goal with12:34 left after a nifty header by Jake Fortner off a free kick.
But East Wake keeper Migel Valdivia came up with some acrobatic saves to preserve the decision, which featured a furious final few minutes as the Knights relentlessly pressured.
“At the end, it was like time was going by slowly,” Valdivia said. “(Knightdale) was coming at us. At first, I was hoping to keep a clean sheet (shutout). After (the Knights) scored, I had to try to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Though there wasn’t a single defining moment, East Wake’s defensive-oriented strategy was aided by its ability to take an early lead, thanks to a goal from leading scorer Vicente Gallardo just over 12 minutes in.
On the play, East Wake’s Eduardo Lopez came up with a steal about 30 yards from the net before sending a pass to Gallardo, who was waiting unattended near the left post.
“Getting that first goal was important,” Gallardo said. “That was a great play by (Lopez) – it was all him. Without him, I would never have scored.”
Gallardo later scored off a throw-in early in the second half to give the Warriors’ a two-goal cushion.
THREE TO KNOW
Migel Valdivia, East Wake: Valdivia came up with 11 stops as part of his clutch performance and saved his best for last as Knightdale pressed for a potential score-tying goal.
Vicente Gallardo, East Wake: A tall player with a nose for the net, Gallardo is the Warriors’ chief scoring threat this fall with over 20 tallies, including two during Wednesday’s match.
Josh Weddle, Knightdale: A midfielder and one of the Knights’ captains, Weddle is known for his on-field leadership, often helping direct teammates through plays. Weddle was one of the Knights honored at halftime as part of senior night.
BY THE NUMBERS
11: Knightdale’s lofty group of upperclassmen features 11 seniors, including the likes of Weddle, keeper Eric Hill and forward Charles Pumbu.
12: The Knights have registered 12 shutouts this season as part of their spectacular campaign and had delivered six straight shutouts before Wednesday’s contest. Knightdale hadn’t allowed a goal for the entire month of October until Gallardo struck.
3-0-1: East Wake has compiled a 3-0-1 mark against GNRC titans Knightdale and Garner this season. If not for some losses to lower-tier foes, the Warriors might still be in the race for the league crown as the season winds down.
“We were fortunate the first time we played Garner, and we played better the second time around against them,” Hasbrouck said. “The first Knightdale match was an overtime tie, which I think was a justice of a result. We got ahead early (Wednesday) and Knightdale threw everything at us in the second half. We were fortunate to survive.”
2: The Warriors still have two matches remaining against West Johnston – another club seeking one of the top spots in the GNRC. Those matches will determine whether East Wake finishes between second and fourth place in the league, which will be important for postseason seeding in the N.C. High School Athletic Association state playoffs.
Much of Knightdale’s strategy is predicated upon sending long balls to Pumbu and Darius Jones, who are then able to utilize their high-level speed to create scoring chances.
But the Knights didn’t have a single breakaway Wednesday as East Wake’s defensive quartet of Garrett Johnson, Isaac Estrada, Dennis Doranta and Jake Clement played with poise and responsibility.
“My back line does not get enough credit,” Hasbrouck said. “Knightdale has two of the best forwards in the league, but we were able to do a good job against them.”
OUT OF BOUNDS
Since he was disqualified with a double-yellow as opposed to a red card, Steele won’t miss any matches the rest of the way. But Retzlaff, by rule, will have to serve a two-match suspension for his red card.
THEY SAID IT
“We have played all-out all season but maybe the pressure worked on us (Wednesday),” said Knightdale’s Weddle. “But it is a bigger picture – we have worked hard all year. We kind of let East Wake get into our heads. We tied them last time, but they are a great team that has come a long way. We just have to continue to be a family and be there for each other. We still control (KHS’ conference destiny).”