The connection Austin DeAngelo, Tyler Nelson and Andrew Peterson have on a soccer field may seem uncanny.
“During games, I can pass without even looking, and I know they’re going to be there,” said Nelson, one of several Friendship Christian School seniors who have been playing together for about a decade.
The consistency contributed to the program’s first state championship since 1997 – when no members from this year’s team were even born.
Friendship defeated Alamance Christian, 8-3, on Oct. 24 for the 2015 N.C. Christian School Association 2A title. Friendship hosted the championship this year.
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“Last year, we lost in the state semis to the eventual state champion,” said Friendship coach Ric Nelson, Tyler’s father. “We were finally older. Instead of being the small guys on the field, we were some of the bigger, more athletic ones.”
The Falcons’ size, paired with determination and an outstanding familiarity, culminated into a significant title season.
Nine of 12 seniors have played together since the eighth grade. The DeAngelo, Peterson and Tyler Nelson trio have been playing for Friendship in some way since the fifth grade, and they had always hoped to bring home a state title.
“As Mr. Nelson says a lot, ‘You want to leave the program better than when you got there,’ ” Peterson said. “We’re seniors, and we’re leaving a legacy, I guess you could say, behind. We wanted to win it so bad because it’s been so long, and we had that desire.”
A season of commitment
Friendship’s three losses this season (19-3) came against teams with a combined record of 41-8-6 and included a 4-2 setback to N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A champion Franklin Academy.
Ric Nelson said the theme this year was “Earn It.”
“People aren’t going to give it to us just because we were returning so many seniors or just because last year we were in the semis,” he said. “If we want respect, if we want to get to that level, we need to take advantage of things and earn what we were accomplishing.”
Being led by three close team captains didn’t hurt their cause, either.
Ric Nelson, the head of school, said this was the easiest team he’s coached in his four years with Friendship. The players respected each other and were unselfish.
They also voted DeAngelo, Peterson and Tyler Nelson as winners of the three end-of-season awards: team player, team leader and team character.
“We don’t care who scores the goal, who gets it,” Peterson said. “We only care about one goal, which is to win.”
Not only was this year’s title team experienced in having 12 seniors of the 36-student class of 2016, they were talented.
The Falcons finished 10-1 in the conference. It scored the most goals in the league with 68, and allowed the fewest with nine.
Many of the team’s statistical leaders were seniors, including Peterson’s team-high 25 assists.
“If we start at the back to the front, the goalie and three of four backs were seniors, the other one was a junior – all very fast and could move forward offensively,” Ric Nelson said. “They were gifted foot skill-wise. The two defensive midfielders, one of them was Austin, were two very smart, technically sound players that controlled connecting the two groups together. Offensively, these players were very gifted. I think some of the success was we were not just seniors, they were technically sound soccer players. They had a lot of fun together this year ... probably one of the easiest teams I’ve every coached as far as attitudes.
“They just enjoyed each other.”
The tests of the regular season didn’t compare to Friendship’s playoff run, as it played three matches – the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals – in the same week.
How committed they were to reaching the goal showed in each round.
“We just seemed to get better every game,” Ric Nelson said. “We seemed to be very determined. I think part of the motto was ‘leave no doubt.’ We wanted to be clear that we were the best team this year. (The state championship) gave credibility to the boys, I think, and to the program. As far as with the community, we played in that St. David’s tournament, we played Trinity of Raleigh, we played Grace of Raleigh, we played Wake Christian, we played Ravenscroft. It gave us the ability to say they’re not just good because they’re a tiny Christian school.
“I wanted them to feel and understand they were good. Really good.”
A lasting stamp
The buzz from the high-margin title victory rumbled through the school walls. Students created a bulletin board of playoff moments, not only for the soccer team. Friendship’s other three fall sports programs – boys’ and girls’ cross country and volleyball – each finished as state runners-up.
One of the largest photos on display is the soccer seniors hoisting their hard-earned trophy. The hardware sits on a table in the school lobby.
Tyler Nelson scored two goals in the championship victory, second to senior Will Moy’s three. Peterson led the match with four assists, adding a goal.
“I think for the school it was exciting,” Ric Nelson said. “I try to keep the boys humble but also try to emphasize to them that they’re really good. We had a lot of respect in the soccer community this year.”
That sentiment likely meant the most to a trio of Friendship Christian soccer players who’ve wanted it for so long, a group who reached it together.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve dreamed about since we were little, winning a state championship,” Peterson said. “I guess you can say it’s a dream come true.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan