Apex had been telling anyone who would listen that it was a different team than the one that began the year. It’s undeniable after winning the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championship on Friday night.
In a rematch of last year’s 4A final at WakeMed Soccer Park, the Apex Cougars held off Charlotte Catholic’s Cougars 7-6. Catholic (20-3) had won last year’s championship 11-8 and this year’s regular-season meeting 8-5.
A double dose of revenge was oh so sweet as Apex (20-2) ended the season on a 15-game winning streak.
“With the things that we went through, it could have gone different ways and these kids decided they were going to make the very best of what they could – and we didn’t even know what that would be,” Apex coach John Hayden said. “Their best turned out to be this, which is pretty good.”
Apex suffered back-to-back losses in the middle of the season to Catholic and Middle Creek – the latter was a 10-goal loss where the running clock was used.
But along the way, Apex figured out who it was and how it was going to band together to win. Egos were tossed out the door completely to the point of humility.
“The difference between this team and all other (Apex) teams is there’s no one good player on this team,” said senior Chandler Besser, who had two goals and two assists. “We’re all a bunch of average lacrosse players or above average, whatever you want to say. And I think we play good team lacrosse together.”
Apex was so even on Friday that the team had no idea who would get the MVP award. It was senior Nick Greco, who had several groundballs, played crucial defense in the waning minutes and scored two goals with one assist.
Greco’s breakaway with 4:43 left surprised the Catholic defense and gave Apex a 7-4 lead.
“I was just trying to play hard out there,” Greco said. “I came around and I saw that they sloughed in and I was like ‘There’s so much space’ so I went in and tried to get it in right over the goalie.”
Catholic controlled the game’s opening four minutes, forcing several Apex turnovers and maintaining possession, but could not score. Apex, with the butterflies out of its stomach, jumped to a 3-0 lead with a goal just 37 seconds into the second quarter.
Apex led 4-1 at halftime despite Catholic having a 17-6 advantage in shots. Apex’s first-half goalie, Patrick Sasser, had five saves. He was replaced at halftime, as he has been all season, by Andrew Mason, who had four saves.
Catholic scored with 1:52 left to make it a one-goal game for the second time in as many quarters.
Apex’s Alex McClure (one) and Jack Hayden (two) also had goals.
Catholic’s goals were scored by Seamus Byrne (two), Jackson Harris (one), Ryan Young (one), Ian Baker (one) and Robbie Wallon (one goal, one assist). Zak Butz and one assist. Before the game, Catholic’s Nick Rizzieri and Apex’s Allen Moore were given NCHSAA sportsmanship awards.
It is Apex’s third state championship (2005, 2013) and second since the NCHSAA began sanctioning the sport in 2010. The school’s rising senior class will enter next year aiming to make it four consecutive trips to the state championship in as many years.
“You can’t do it every year, but when you tell the kids that, they’re like ‘What do you mean?’” coach Hayden said. “That’s our cross to bear, it’s sort of the expectation. You either embrace it or you don’t, and we choose to embrace it one year at a time.”