For the first time in school history, Middle Creek’s girls soccer team still has something to play for entering Memorial Day weekend. This year’s Mustangs have an N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championship game to prepare for.
Middle Creek will be an underdog against Charlotte’s Providence High at 2 p.m. Saturday at N.C State’s Dail Soccer Field.
But the Mustangs have embraced the role.
Even senior attacker Ally Elliott would have been a bit caught off guard if someone told her that a few months ago.
“It probably would have surprised me, considering our 2-12 (conference) record last year,” Elliott, a four-year varsity player, said. “But now that we’re here, it’s such a great feeling.”
THE UNDERDOG RUN
The Mustangs have rattled off five wins against Pine Forest, Wakefield, Cardinal Gibbons, Panther Creek and Athens Drive and are one win away from earning a state title.
In a sport where the favorites nearly always prevail during postseason play, the Mustangs are an outlier.
This year’s Mustangs are 13-5-6.
The last four East champions entered the title match undefeated.
The previous nine had just six losses combined at this stage. None had fewer than 19 wins or more than three ties going into the state championship.
Of the other seven girls soccer teams going for state titles this Saturday, six are 1-seeds and one is a 2-seed.
Then there’s No. 26 Middle Creek.
After finishing fourth in the SWAC and losing its final three games of the regular season, Middle Creek will have a shot at glory thanks to its innate ability to win away from home and the emergence of junior midfielder Kylie McElroy, who has scored eight goals in five playoff matches.
SIGNS IN THE FIRST WEEKS
Coming off a second consecutive losing season, the opening stretch of Middle Creek’s season seemed brutal, as the team opened with four road games, with the first two coming against Broughton and Panther Creek, the defending 4A state champions.
Unexpectedly, Middle Creek tied the Caps and then proceeded to win at Panther Creek.
The results provided a confidence boost to the Mustangs and showed what was possible.
“We knew we had something special when we tied Broughton in the first game and then we came out and beat Panther Creek right off the bat, and they’re the defending state champs. So, we knew we rounded some sort of corner,” first-year Middle Creek coach Guy Coleman said.
The true value of Middle Creek’s unkind schedule revealed itself when the postseason began. Unfazed by tough competition thanks to the SWAC, the Mustangs have outscored opponents 16-4 in five postseason games, four of which were on the road.
That’s just fine with Coleman’s group.
Middle Creek is 11-2-2 in away games, but has won at home only twice. How? Coleman doesn’t quite know, but Elliott believes there’s something special about the bus rides to games.
“We get very excited on the bus rides,” she said. “We have a lot of fun, and that’s what keeps us so close, honestly.”
A NEW VOICE
Despite the Mustangs coming off a 7-13 campaign, Coleman realized that talent would not be an issue shortly after watching his team practice for the first time.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Coleman, who also coaches the boys’ team, preached a straightforward message: Focus on honing your first touch, work on your stamina and always keep your head up during the game.
His players clearly took heed to those directions, and it’s paying dividends. Middle Creek has won more games in 2016 (13) than it did in its previous two seasons (12), and the Mustangs have continued to gel as a group as the season has progressed.
Coleman’s arrival has played a big role in Middle Creek’s improved play, and the players have a new sense of confidence because of him, according to senior defender Sarah Hedgecock.
“He’s always pushing us to do our best and to always work hard,” Hedgecock said. “And I think it reflects in our game.”
Likewise, Coleman is appreciative of the effort he’s gotten from his team.
“They haven’t resigned at winning regionals,” he said. “They want to make the last stand here, and we’re happy to go into it as a 26-seed.”
Carrboro, Franklin Academy playing for titles
Also at N.C. State, Carrboro faces Forbush at 11 a.m. in a rematch of last year’s 2A title game, and Franklin Academy takes on Community School of Davidson for the 5 p.m. game.
Franklin Academy will be without leading scorer Keira Stephan (46 goals), who tore her ACL in the East regional final.
“I know for a fact, overall, we’re a super strong team, and without me, they can still win at states,” said Stephan, who managed a goal. “It’s a bit sad, but I’m just happy I could be there to support them.”
The team’s second leading scorer is Stephan’s younger sister, Niamh. As a freshman, she has 27 goals.
In last year’s championship, Carrboro’s Miah Araba, now a junior, scored from more than 30 yards out with six minutes left to play in the second half of overtime to send the Jaguars past Forbush 2-1. Araba had both goals, and Carrboro finished the season with an NCHSAA record for fewest goals allowed in a season: two.
This year’s team has allowed just four, two in the a fourth-round 5-2 win against Clinton in overtime.
Jessika Morgan and J. Mike Blake