To earn its first-ever trip to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state championship, Middle Creek had to knock off state powerhouse Cardinal Gibbons in the East final.
“They’ve been ‘the team’ over the past several years. We were fired up to get the chance to come out,” Middle Creek coach Nick Holota said. “They’ve been the standard bearers.”
The Mustangs broke away from a 5-all deadlock early in the third quarter to defeat the Crusaders 14-8 Tuesday, marking a historic moment in school history. The Mustangs will play Lake Norman for the 4A title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“It felt good because you grow up and you go to Cardinal Gibbons games and you see how talented they are, so you have a lot of respect,” defensive captain and Averett recruit Keith Phillips said. “But on the field, they were just the next team up.”
The game was widely heralded by lacrosse fans as a match-up of the state’s top offense – Middle Creek scored 15.4 goals per game before the semifinal game – and defense – Cardinal Gibbons allowed 3.75 goals per game to NCHSAA opponents.
By shutting down the Crusaders in the second half – Gibbons only scored three more times after a quick Will Domville rip tied the game to begin the third quarter – Middle Creek showed its defense was nothing to scoff at. For Phillips, it wasn’t surprising because of the competition they’ve faced all year in practice.
“Our confidence is built and practiced when we go up against a really tough offense every day, so I think we know whatever challenge we go against, we’re prepared for,” Phillips said. “It helps for these big-time opponents.”
With the plethora of blowout wins over the year and a possession-dominant offense, Middle Creek goalie Johnny Kelley’s abilities were hard to measure. However, after a poised night behind the pipes when it mattered most, making 13 saves, it appears the Mustangs’ final line of defense is prepared for whatever Lake Norman has.
“Johnny means a lot to us. He gives a lot of confidence to our defense,” Holota said. “Our offense has gotten a lot of attention, but I’m really proud of our defensive unit and what they do when they get out there. (Kelley) has worked really hard to get this good.”
Middle Creek’s senior class has an astounding 70-8 record, compared to the 36-29 record the program achieved in the four years before that.
“This group plays so hard for each other,” Holota said. “That’s not to discourage the other teams that I’ve coached, but these guys came up together and have been on varsity teams for a long time out here, and they’re a family in the sense of what a team should be. They get on each other, they argue, but at the end of the day, they play so hard for each other.”
Cardinal Gibbons graduates a strong senior class that features the area’s top FOGO in Trevor Kirsch, attackman Anthony Digirolamo, starting offensive midfielders William Domville and Charles Van Dyke and arguably the best defender in eastern North Carolina in Sean Nelson.
However, 2016 N&O Player of the Year Chris Wozencroft, Zach Niemi and leading scorer Adam Barry will return to lead a strong 2018 class searching for redemption.