Even though the season is in its infancy, Corinth Holders senior Ryan McDaniel has already offered a strong candidate for understatement of the 7ear in the Johnston County boys prep soccer scene.
“Well, that was one to remember,” McDaniel said in almost-too-calm fashion while walking off the field after his Pirates had rallied twice before finally edging West Johnston by a 4-3 margin in Tuesday’s semifinal round of the annual JUSA Cup at Clayton High School.
Seemingly on the verge of defeat, Corinth Holders nabbed the equalizer in the closing minutes of regulation to force overtime. After nothing was decided in the two five-minute sudden-death periods, the Pirates won in the sixth round of penalty kicks on a successful attempt by sophomore Dalton Forrest.
In a rematch of last year’s finale, Corinth Holders will tangle with host Clayton in Wednesday night’s championship (8:30) at Clayton High School. The Comets scored early and went on to stop Cleveland 1-0 in the other semifinal showdown.
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Tonight’s schedule at Clayton also includes a consolation round match between Smithfield-Selma and South Johnston at 6:30 p.m.
Pirates rally by West
The tactical matchup between Clayton and Cleveland was almost anticlimactic following the opening thriller, which saw West Johnston (1-0-1), a touted club with 16 senior veterans, move ahead 1-0 late in the first half courtesy of a marker from midfielder speedster Austin Stephens.
And when Wildcat Jakob Edwards delivered a tap-in just over two minutes into the second half, West Johnston appeared well on its way to making a finals appearance.
But Corinth Holders (0-0-1) had other ideas, beginning with Dillon Parker’s PK with 34:32 remaining Just over six minutes later, Pirates’ forward Miguel Ibarra gained a step up the right side and delivered a blast that tied the score in stunning fashion at 2-2.
The Wildcats once again took charge when Luis Molina found the ball in front of the net off a scrum for a goal with 8:01 left. For the second time, Corinth Holders had an answer as Adam Landeros sent a laser into the back of the net off another right-side rush to tie the score at the 2:18 mark.
Neither club could convert the rest of regulation and through a pair of five-minute overtime periods, though Corinth Holders keeper Ryan Mills came up with the save of the game as he stopped Stephens on a mini breakaway in the first extra session.
The outcome was destined to be determined by kicks, and the Pirates, shooting second in the rotation, averted defeat on two occasions with successful conversions.
In the sixth round, a Wildcats’ shot went wide, putting the contest squarely on the foot of Forrest, who took a deep breath before quickly rushing toward the ball.
With the huge crowd fixated in silence, Forrest went high center into the twine and was soon mobbed near the box by his jubilant teammates.
“I pretty much knew I wanted to go high middle,” Forrest said. “I really don’t know how to explain the feeling. I just saw all the guys coming to me – I was so happy.”
For Corinth Holders veteran coach Brent Walston, the journey to the outcome was almost as important as the final score as his club was able to claw back on two occasions, including a two-goal deficit.
“I told our guys to look up the word ‘resiliency’ in the dictionary, because that is what we showed,” Walston said. “We just stayed with it. It was a third-round playoff intensity for the first game of the season against an awesome West Johnston opponent. We certainly wouldn’t have been there in the end if not for Ryan in goal. You could say he stood on his head.”
The Pirates now have an opportunity to avenge last year’s finals loss to Clayton, which came courtesy of a golden goal in overtime
West Johnston thought it would be the team in that position, but the Wildcats weren’t able to finish the job Tuesday despite boasting the territorial advantage for much of the event.
For a team looking to upgrade its standing in the Greater Neuse River Conference with a skilled, veteran group, it was an early-season lesson learned.
“A close loss like this, you can use it as a motivator for the rest of the season,” said West Johnston senior Gavin Brundidge. “I thought we deserved to win, but we didn’t convert on some chances, and that is something we need to focus on.
“We are learning how to win. We want to win our conference and feel like we can do that with our 16 seniors and the style of play we have. We feel like we have a chance to make a name for West Johnston soccer and go deep in the playoffs.”
New faces come through for Comets
Following the penalty-kick drama, fans only had a few minutes to exhale before the finale was staged as the Comets looked to take a step toward a possible second straight JUSA crown, albeit with a new roster and overall focus.
Clayton was a scoring machine last fall en route to making the second round of the NC High School Athletic Association 4A State Playoffs. But with only three starters returning -- and its frontline decimated by graduation, the Comets are taking a much different philosophical approach to the 2016 campaign.
That strategy was evident Tuesday as Clayton made an early goal from Logan Gardner stand up as part of a 1-0 decision over the Rams.
Gardner registered his marker eight minutes in off a feed from Logan Eure, and the Comets’ (1-0) defense did the rest.
“We are a young team, so that is kind of what we are right there — a freshman (Eure) going to a sophomore (Gardner) for the goal,” said Clayton coach John Asmussen. “We are not going to be the same type of team this year. We are built from the back up. Our most advanced one-third of the field is on defense, and our offense is probably the least one-third. We need to work on scoring, but we realize that.”
As inexperienced as the Comets are, Cleveland (1-1) is even more so as the Rams return just one starter from last year’s Two Rivers Conference champion.
Cleveland coach Nick Gruhn views his club as a work in progress, though he thinks the Rams have the long-term potential to once again be successful in the competitive TRC.
“We played a tough team; Clayton came ready to play,” Gruhn said. “Our guys settled in more in the second half, and we were able to make it more 50-50 in terms of chances. With a young team, you are going to have good days and not-so-good days. We are on the right track.”
Clayton’s current track puts the Comets one victory away from a JUSA title defense, but Asmussen knows it won’t be easy as the Pirates will certainly be fueled by last season’s near-miss against Clayton.
“It’s a pride thing,” Asmussen said. “The kids on all of these (Johnston County) teams know each other and play club ball together. They hang out on weekends. At this tournament, you have the same intensity you might see for a big conference game. This means a lot to these guys.”