Panther Creek looked nothing like the No. 30 seed that limped into the playoffs on the heels of a four-game losing streak, and every bit like the defending 4A girls soccer state champs as they handed host Knightdale a 3-1 loss Friday.
With the win in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs, the Catamounts (11-9-3) moved on to face Sanderson in hopes to continue their quest for a second state title. The key to that goal, according to Panther Creek coach David Grant, will be maintaining consistency by keeping possession of the ball and finishing.
“We got through the injuries and we have a good mind set to get over things quickly,” Grant said. “We play in a tough conference and we know what it takes to win because we have been here before.”
The Catamounts gave the Knights (14-7-2) everything they could handle right from the start, getting off the first shot on goal before one minute elapsed, but they were unable to hit the target as several shots sailed high or were picked up by Knightdale freshman goal keeper Mallory Aycock.
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“They were fast and kept playing the ball down the line,” Aycock said. “We had to mark them because they were super fast.”
That speed eventually started to wear down the Knights. After about 10 attempts, the Catamounts scored the first goal on a shot by freshman striker Emily Moxley that deflected off a Knightdale defender and just past Aycock’s outstretched arms with 22:50 left in the first half.
“We struggled to finish at first,” Moxley said, “but we just kept going and going until we finally finished one. We had good communication on the field and good passing.”
Knightdale responded with a couple strong runs, but was unable to make any headway as a shot by freshman Kate Ward was right at Panther Creek junior keeper Katherine Hammond. The Catamounts continued at a frenetic pace and kept pressure on a Knightdale defense that had allowed just 25 goals on the season.
Set pieces were key in setting up several opportunities for the Catamounts, who picked up the second goal after two corner kicks. Aycock deflected the initial shot, but sophomore Kaila Hamm picked up the rebound and won the face-off for a 2-0 lead at the 8:38 mark. Two minutes later, junior Lindsay Haney found the top of the net off a free kick from 20 yards out to give Panther Creek a 3-0 lead into the half.
The Knights had a few near misses in the second half before senior Tori Leech took a pass down the sideline and scored on a shot to the far post to cap the scoring with 18:33 left in the game.
The Knights were able to shut down the lanes in the second half, but they weren’t able to keep pace while facing an uphill battle.
“Conference play helps us because of the pace of play,” Grant said. “That is why our conference has been so successful. The pace of play helps us outside of our conference.”
Grant said it was an all-around good performance he hopes the team can continue into the next round.
“Our opponents will continue to get stronger and we’ve got to continue what we’re doing and increase the pace of play,” he said. “We have been focusing on finishing in the attacking third of the field and that has paid off with six goals in the last two games.”
Knightdale coach Aaron Steele offered a tip of the cap to the Catamounts, who he said were “very intelligent on set pieces.”
“We knew it would take our best effort to beat them,” Steele said. “They suffocated a lot of our outlets.”
Steele said his players should be proud of what they accomplished this season. In addition to taking second in Greater Neuse River Conference play, the team also got to host the defending state champs in the second round of the state playoffs, a stage they had not reached in six years.