North Johnston went into Wednesday’s matchup with Washington — its third of the season — from a new perspective.
The Panthers didn’t look at the Pam Pack as a side that had defeated them twice already this season in Eastern Plains 2A Conference play, nor a team that had a 9-3 scoring advantage on them in those matches. Instead they saw the contest as a chance for a Washington first.
“They’d beaten us in the regular season, but we didn’t look at this as a third match,” said North coach Jody Edwards. “I felt like this was their first chance to beat us in a playoff situation, something we’d fared very well in for the first two rounds of the playoffs.”
The Pam Pack wouldn’t let the result be any different, however, grabbing a 4-1 victory to end the Panthers’ run in the NCHSAA 2A boys soccer playoffs.
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Washington (24-1) moved on to meet either Clinton or Eastern Randolph in the fourth round. North finishes with a 21-5-1 mark.
“North was a tremendous challenge,” said Washington coach Jim Kozuch said. “They’re a very good, high-scoring team who is very well coached.”
The Panthers were the state’s third-highest scoring team this season through three rounds of the playoffs with 134 goals coming in, but Washington showed it had an offense that was just as effective early in the match.
Washington got on the board 21 minutes in after a push up the left flank that Rob Zirniak blasted home. North had a few rushes in the opening half, the most promising coming on a corner with just more than a minute to play in the half.
Ian Walston’s corner kick found its way to the ground just feet away from the Washington goal and a North attacker got a foot on it only to see the shot glance off of the goalpost and right into the hands of senior keeper Blake Parker.
The Panthers put a focus on limiting Washington’s shot, eyeing holding them to five in each half.
“They average about 20 a night, which is a tremendous number of chances on goal,” Edwards said. “We thought if we could get close to cutting that number in half, we’d be in good shape.”
The Pam Pack had eight shots on goal in the first half and seven in the second 40 minutes of play. North senior goalie Max Kirby made 10 saves on the night.
The 24-1 squad made the most of their second-half shots.
Kozuch said he elected to take the north end of the field in the second half because it was slicker than the other half: “We thought if we got through the first half, we might be able to take advantage of the field on that end in the second half on offense.”
The Pam Pack did just that four minutes into the second half. Erik Ruiz sent a ball to the left middle of the field to Freddy Jimenez, who spun toward the goal as a North defender lost his footing on the play leaving the talented senior scorer alone against North goalie Max Kirby. Jimenez’s shot to the far left post got just by Kirby’s hands and settled in just below the crossbar for a 2-0 lead.
Jimenez set up Washington’s third goal, putting a beautiful cross on the head of Holt McKeithen for a 3-0 lead with 23:45 to play, all but ensuring a trip to the fourth round.
North took advantage of a rare mistake by Parker three minutes later. After picking up a ball in the box, Parker dribbled the ball with his hand, let it hit the ground and his foot before picking it up again, committing a double possession foul. The miscue gave the Panthers a direct kick just inside of the 18-yard box.
North’s Marcos Orozco touched the ball back to Walston who drilled the shot through the Pam Pack defensive wall and by Parker for his 42nd goal of the season.
The Panthers had another scoring chance with seven minutes to play on a Walston corner kick when Parker could only tip the ball back to the middle of the field, but North couldn’t get a foot on the ball for a shot on goal.
“We thrive on pushing the ball from the outside into the middle of the field,” Edwards said. “I subscribe to the theory that 80 percent of your good scoring chances come when you work the ball from the outside into the middle of the field. We just didn’t get enough of that tonight.”
The match’s final goal came after a 70-yard goal kick from Parker ended up on the foot of a racing Zerniak who put the ball home for a second time with 5:38 to play.
North finishes the year having set a record for most wins in a season and equaled the program’s longest run in the state playoffs. Walston, in addition to his 42 goals, set a team record with 31 assists in a season. The 135 goals scored in a season breaks the record of the 2004 Panthers who scored 124 times.
“We look at what we did and the scrimmage results we had against teams like First Flight and we really have a lot to be proud about this season,” Edwards said. “The guys have set a standard for future North teams to shoot for. We’ve got six seniors we’ll sorely missed and who leave with a lot to be proud of looking back.”
The Panthers lose Kirby, Orzoco, Chase Davis, Chase Stancil, Pio Camacho and Reese Coley to graduation, but will are poised to possibly return 15 players with varsity experience to their lineup next fall.