CARY It had been 74 minutes since either team had scored and with the way the game was going, Panther Creek and Fuquay-Varina, two Southwest Wake Athletic Conference foes, seemed destined to head to penalty kicks in Friday night’s NCHSAA 4A girls soccer quarterfinals match.
Then Justine James happened.
With her team in a bit of an offensive funk, the Panther Creek senior striker snapped the Catamounts out of it and ended the Bengals’ season all on one kick.
Out of nowhere, James decided to pull the trigger on a shot from outside the penalty box and somehow her effort found the back of the net, giving Panther Creek a 2-1 win and a spot in next week’s semifinals round against Wilmington’s Hoggard in a rematch of last year’s East final.
“I saw the right net open and I just went for it,” James said. “And it went in.”
The goal was an impressive ending to an impressive match between two SWAC opponents that were meeting for the third time this season.
Panther Creek, who remained undefeated (18-0-2) with Friday night’s win, had defeated the Bengals (17-4) twice during the regular season, but still expected a tough battle and that’s exactly what it got.
Entering the third game between the two teams, Panther Creek’s stout defense had surrendered only four goals all season long, so it appeared the Catamounts would be in good shape when sophomore defender Meredith Hamby snuck her shot past Fuquay-Varina sophomore goalkeeper Rachel Howard to put the home team ahead 1-0 just thirteen minutes in.
Not discouraged, Fuquay-Varina responded only 12 minutes later as junior midfielder Kelley Suggs emerged from a scum for the ball and was able to score, perfectly placing her shot in the bottom right corner of the goal.
The goal was the beginning of an impressive offensive attack by the Bengals.
Fuquay-Varina set the pace and controlled the field position battle for much of the first half, getting several good looks at the net.
Unfortunately for head coach Nick Acosta’s Fuquay-Varina team, the Bengals had a few tough bounces go the other way.
Moments after Suggs’ goal, Fuquay-Varina nearly scored again, but had a shot go inches over the crossbar. Later on, Fuquay-Varina nearly took the lead on a shot that ricocheted off the right woodwork.
For Acosta, it’s tough knowing his team was one lucky break away from possibly being one win away from a title game appearance.
“It’s a game of inches,” Acosta said. “If we had gotten a break here and there, I think it would have been a different story.”
Even with Fuquay-Varina’s misfortunes at times, the Bengals still had several good looks at the goal, but Panther Creek senior goalkeeper Celeste Barnard rose to the occasion multiple times, keeping her team alive in a game in which the Catamount offense struggled to find much of a rhythm.
With that said, something had to give eventually and James’ game-winner lifted Panther Creek to its biggest victory of the year, even though Friday night’s contest was far from the Catamounts’ best of the season.
The 2014 runner-up, Panther Creek hopes this year’s postseason run ends with a championship. But any hope of that begins with playing well against Hoggard on Tuesday.
“Our ultimate goal is to get back there and win a state title, but we’ve also taken it a game at a time,” Panther Creek head coach David Grant said.