Lee County played the role of prohibitive favorite perfectly in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association boys soccer playoffs Tuesday night. Corinth Holders, meanwhile, did its best to break out of the underdog spot. But it wasn’t enough to knock off the Yellow Jackets, who took a 3-2 victory at Paul Gay Stadium.
The 2015 state finalists built a pair of two-goal leads — one in each half — and made the plays to hold onto the lead each time the Pirates cut the margin to a goal.
The Yellow Jackets (23-3-0) will play at Swansboro (21-3-1) for the second consecutive year in the playoffs on Thursday. Lee County won 3-1 last year, but graduated 13 seniors from that squad.
“It’s all about one-goal games,” said Corinth Holders coach Brent Walston. “We were down a man with two seconds left and we were this close to finding a way to get by the goalie. We’ve just got to find something to get us over that hump of the second round.”
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Corinth Holders, the Two Rivers 3A Conference co-champion, finishes the season with a 16-6-2 mark. It was the sixth consecutive year the Pirates have won a playoff match, but five of those times their season has ended in the second round.
After a first 25 minutes where Corinth Holders possessed the ball in space in the Jackets’ end with space to operate, the Yellow Jackets finally got on the board when back-to-back shots on goal missed the mark before Jonathan Guevera put home a point blank shot that Corinth Holders goalie Ryan Mills saves but couldn’t hold onto.
“To steal the hockey term, Ryan Mills stood on his head for us tonight,” Walston said. “We knew they bring a lot of people up into the offense and they were going to put a lot of pressure on us.”
Nine minutes later, James Slade found the net for Lee County, which appeared to have a safe two-goal working margin established.
“We’ve got to find ways to get the guys to shoot the ball more,” said Lee County coach Brad Wicker said. “It was like once we started firing, that’s when we started scoring. I felt like there were a lot of shots out there that we didn’t take.”
But although the Pirates’ ability to work the ball in open space started to dry up in the final 10 minutes of the first half, their offense improved.
“We made an adjustment in what we were doing formation-wise near the end of the half and it helped us create better chances around the goal,” Walston said.
It worked as Dalton Forrest scored on a Adam Landeros feed with 111 seconds left until halftime to cut the lead to a single goal.
The Pirates had their best chance to equalize 17 minutes into the second half on a pair of consecutive Matt Benca corners. The second found the head of a teammate at the far post who redirected it back across the goal box but there wasn’t a Corinth Holders presence there to put a shot on Jacket goalie Angi Martinez.
Lee County upped the lead to 3-1 on a bouncing shot from Alex Alba with 18:23 to play with Osciel Dominguez assisting.
Martinez also made a diving save on a penalty kick with 10 minutes to play.
“That was a heck of a save,” Wicker said of the PK stop. “We went to PKs in the conference tournament and I think that helped Agni in that situation.”
The Pirates kept coming, though, getting back within a goal with 6:43 to play when Alexis Avila picked his way to the goal and cut the lead back to a goal.
The Pirates had a few couple of chances in the final minutes, even when they went down a man, but Martinez and the Lee County defense held strong.
The Pirates will graduate a half-dozen seniors — Tyler Mills, Dillon Parker, Miguel Ibarra, Ryan McDaniel, Jacob Meierer and Alex Restrepo, a group that includes five staters.
“I’ve been doing this for 26 years now,” Walston said. “I think you learn something from every match you play and when it’s your last match of the season that that’s really emphasized.”
He continued: “You play matches like this and you realize how small that difference between advancing and your season ending is.”