How quickly a game can turn was on full display in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A boys soccer playoffs matchup between fourth-seeded North Johnston and fifth-seeded Dixon Tuesday night.
Less than one minute after the Panthers’ Carlos Aguilar tied the game off of a corner kick late in the contest, the Bulldogs’ Ben Costner notched his fifth and most important goal of the season, also on a corner kick, to give visiting Dixon the thrilling 4-3 win.
“I really thought that after our third goal, that it would definitely go into overtime with the momentum but they snuck one in,” North Johnston coach Jody Edwards said. “I don’t think we were quite ready on our corner kick set defense; we were slow setting up.”
He continued: “In the playoffs, it doesn’t take but a few seconds to score and change the game.”
In the 78th minute, Dixon (16-3-2) was awarded its sixth corner kick of the game. Bradley Bizzell looked for Michael Lin at the near post, who received the ball and slotted it across the face of the goal where Costner one-timed the offering into the back of the net.
North Johnston (17-6-2) had one last gasp at extending the game into overtime after being awarded a free kick 40 yards from goal in the final moments of regulation.
The Panthers’ Ricardo Padilla-Sanchez and his big left leg, also used with great success as the football team’s kickoff specialist, drilled a shot just underneath the crossbar, which the Bulldogs’ Justice McGregor tipped over the bar as time expired.
Dixon found itself down a goal on two different occasions on its way to victory.
In the first half, North Johnston took the lead on a Tyler Jackson header that ricocheted off the post and in the goal to go up 1-0. The lead looked like it would hold up until the second half until a quick change of events leveled the game just before the stroke of halftime.
Awarded a throw-in deep in Bulldogs territory with 30 seconds left before halftime, the Panthers pushed to try to take advantage of Ian Walston’s dangerous long throw. However, after the ball bounced in the penalty box, Dixon’s Collin Hinnant made a heads-up play directing his clearance out and up the left wing to Bizzell.
Although Bizzell’s attempt to beat North Johnston’s Padilla-Sanchez was momentarily thwarted at the top of the 18-yard box, the ball was deflected upwards and the Bulldogs’ Kevin Berregard headed the ball into the corner of the goal just before time expired in the half.
The Panthers responded quickly in the second half, however, to once again claim the lead as Walston bombed a diagonal pass towards JoJo Richardson who beat his defender on a foot race to the ball before knocking it home for the 2-1 lead.
Once again, the Bulldogs would answer as they took control of the tempo of the game and dominated possession in the midfield.
Great combination play between Bizzell and Costner set Hinnant free on goal and the sophomore beat the Panthers’ Noah Brewer to tie the game once again at 2-2.
A piece of individual brilliance from Levi Bryant gave the visitors from the East Central Conference their first lead of the gave as he spun around a defender before lacing a shot inside the right post for the 3-2 lead in the 65th minute, setting the stage for the dramatic final moments.
“Most of our success this season, we’d get on it early and play from ahead,” Dixon coach Kevin Hart said. “That’s the first time we came from behind and found success together. When they were faced with some adversity tonight, you saw a team that can come from behind not once, but twice and then give it away only to come down here and just have a nose for goal and find a way to make it happen.”
The loss drew to an end the Panthers’ successful season that included sharing the Eastern Plains Conference title with Washington before beating them in the seeding game to enter the playoffs as the league top-seeded side.
For seniors Aguilar, Brewer, Jeremiah Coley, Connor Cook, Jackson, Padilla-Sanchez, Richardson and Walston, the loss ends a successful three-year run.
The core group of seniors are responsible for 52 varsity wins over the past three seasons taking the program and its expectations to new heights.
“I was proud of the guys and told them to concentrate on all that they’ve accomplished, the wins that they had last year (21) which was a school record and conference champions this year,” said Edwards. “I’m very proud of the seniors; they built the program up.”
Walston finished his high school career with 68 goals and 62 assists.