Jody Edwards has spent the entire 2016 high school boys soccer team telling his North Johnston Panther squad that they were good enough to do everything they’ve dreamed of this season.
Deep down, the Panthers believed him. But in a way they still needed to show it to themselves on the pitch.
They did just that Wednesday night, downing traditional power Washington, 3-1, to grab the Eastern Plains 2A Conference’s No. 1 playoff seeding for the state playoffs, which start Saturday. The teams — which split their regular-season meetings — will go down as conference co-champions but North gets the prime playoff seeding — namely more home games if it continues to advance in the playoffs.
“We’ve had the confidence in ourselves that we’re good,” Edwards said. “They’re not an over-confident or cocky group, but they believe in themselves. It’s a great feeling to beat a talented, well-coached team like Washington and know we’ve made being at home longer in the playoffs a possibility.”
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North (16-5-2) spent its early-season taking lumps from some of the best teams from across the state, knowing it would make the Panthers better in November.
It showed against the Pam Pack, a team that has only lost to one 2A team as a 2A school: the Panthers.
Carlos Aguilar scored two goals and Adolfo Rosales added another and North Johnston never trailed.
North led 15 minutes in when Ian Walston crossed the ball across the outside of the penalty area to Aguilar on the right flank. The shot was solid and high, finding the far corner of the net for a 1-0 advantage.
Sixteen minutes later, North senior captain JoJo Richardson blasted a shot at Pam Pack keeper Kevin Avilla who made a sprawling save. But Rosales was there to punch home the rebound for a two-goal lead.
A mid-season switch of positions for Richardson and Walston helped kick the Panthers’ winning streak into gear. Edwards moved Richardson to forward to pair with Aguilar, putting Walston in the left back position he often plays in club ball.
“That’s a place where Ian is really comfortable and JoJo and Carlos have really worked well together up top,” Edwards said.
The Panthers are 11-1-1 since the move.
Washington’s goal came with 1:48 to play in the opening half when Rob Zerniak’s corner found Oscar Espinoza open in front of the net.
The Pam Pack (18-2) did its best over the final 90 seconds of the half to push for an equalizing and momentum-swinging goal, but North Johnston’s defense wouldn’t let it happen.
The biggest Washington scoring threat in the second half came with 29 minutes to play as a shot by Victor Hernandez got away from North keeper Noah Brewer. But the Panther backline was there to make sure there wasn’t a second shot with Rakim Stancil making the final clearance of the ball.
The Panthers then had to play a man down after a red card foul with 17 minutes to play, but they were up to that challenge as well, holding last year’s state runner-up squad without a real scoring threat the rest of the way.
North wrapped up the victory with Aguilar leading the charge with 15 minutes to play, redirecting a teammate’s deflected shot into the net.