Chapel Hill soccer coach Rob Benson didn’t believe in fairy tale endings, but his faith in his players paid off Saturday in the N.C. High School Athletics Association 3A final.
Down by a goal at halftime, Chapel Hill rallied in the closing minutes at N.C. State’s Dail Stadium to defeat Matthews Weddington 2-1 and earned its first state championship in girls’ soccer.
In the 79th minute, Chapel Hill’s Megan Dell took a pass out of the right wing from Sofie Nielsen and sent the decisive goal low past diving goalkeeper Taylor Schuster.
Weddington (20-3-1) led first after ninth-grader Gabby Gormier scored just 14 minutes, 58 seconds into the game, getting an assist froim Western Carolina signee Chandler Arrowood.
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Chapel Hill got the equalizer from Mia Spencer with 26:27 left off an assist from match MVP Alexa Kimball.
“For us to send Benson off with this win means so much,” said Kimball, who’s signed to play next fall at North Carolina. “Every game in the playoffs felt like that. This one felt really, really important. We all wanted to win this for him.”
The victory for Chapel Hill (23-1-0) was Benson’s last game as coach after 34 years leading the Tigers. His cumulative record for both boys’ and girls’ soccer was 695-274-83 (395-155-41 in girls’ soccer alone.)
Chapel Hill has won three state championships in boys’ soccer but none in girls’ soccer before Saturday, despite 27 playoff appearances.
“If you had told me to write this story, I don’t think this is the way I could have written it,” Benson said.
Benson’s retirement was an open secret since mid-season. With almost 10 games left, the team organized a halftime presentation for the veteran coach, honoring him for his tenure.
“Midway through the season, it started to leak out that the players were trying to win it all for the retiring coach,” Benson said. “I was just worried that they and the Chapel Hill community at large were going to be disappointed if we didn’t win, like everyone expected.”
Early on Saturday, the Tigers had reason to worry as Weddington got more and better chances and out-shot Chapel Hill 4-1 in the opening minutes. The Warriors broke through with Gormier’s long, arching chip shot from almost 40 yards out. The ball sailed over Chapel Hill goalie Aylee Whitesides, bounced at the touchline and hit the back of the net just inside the far post.
“We had better play in the first half, but Chapel Hill is so stout defensively, we couldn’t capitalize more than we did,” Weddington coach Powell Williams said. “Normally, we’re a better second-half team, but today we weren’t.”
Weddington had an excellent chance in the 45th minute, when Charlotte signee Virginia Lingo hit a hard shot from inside the penalty area, but Chapel Hill second-half goalie Madeline Mesaros punched it over the crossbar.
“I still thought we were going to win – absolutely,” Benson said. “We have too many players who can score. Alex Kimball is a great scorer, but we have other people who can score, too.”
Weddington tied up Kimball – Chapel Hill’s leading scorer with 23 goals and 17 assists – until midway through the last half. She got loose on the left wing, drew two Warriors toward her, and centered a ball to Spencer, who fought off a defender and quickly sent a low shot from just off the penalty arc into the center of the net.
“First I thought the defender beat me to the ball, then I thought the goalie had it,” said Spencer, still woozy from a head bump. “I just screamed when it went in.”
Many spectators perhaps thought the game was headed to overtime before Nielsen made a long run into the right corner and centered the ball. Coming out of the midfield, Dell ran onto the ball and slammed it low past the diving keeper with 1:33 left.
The match was Weddington’s second appearance in a girls soccer final, but its first since losing to Apex in the 2007 4A final.
“We’ll have 8-9 starters back next year, plus our first two players off our bench,” Williams said. “We’ll have pretty much the same team next year. We’ve still got a good outlook.”