Four years ago, a Middle Creek and Lee County boys soccer matchup would have been a bottom-half battle in the old Tri-9 4A Conference. But things have changed rapidly in a short time.
Thursday’s tilt featured two of the area’s best teams, with visiting N&O No. 7 Middle Creek winning 3-1 at the No. 2 Yellow Jackets.
Middle Creek (3-0) is off to another fast start under second-year head coach Guy Coleman. Coleman, new to the Triangle last year, said there’s a new comfort level with this year’s group.
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“They’re a little more used to me than they were,” Coleman said. “They know their jobs and I don’t have to tell them what to do job-wise; it’s more pyschological-wise and getting them to work as a team and as a unit.”
The Mustangs have eight seniors, led by returning N&O All-Metro pick Chris Wallace (one assist) and goalkeeper Cameron Cornwell, who had a big game fending off many Lee County attacks in the second half.
“He’s an all-conference keeper, he could be an all-state keeper,” Coleman said. “And he’s pretty confident back there.”
Middle Creek had an opportunity to win the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference last year going into the final week but finished just shy in third place. Coleman said games against teams like Lee County – as well as previous wins in the same week against Millbrook and Northern Durham – will prepare it well for a final year in the current SWAC configuration.
Though at No. 7, the Mustangs are ranked behind Green Hope and Apex.
“Those are the big dogs in this conference, and we want to be prepared when we get there,” Coleman said.
Lee County (4-1) is dealing with heightened expectations after last year’s run to the 3A boys soccer championship game, the first appearance the Yellow Jackets have ever made.
Lee downed powerhouse Chapel Hill in the fourth round and Eastern Alamance in the East final before falling to Weddington in the title.
Though the Jackets graduated 13 players, inlcuing N&O All-Metro pick Peyton* Jackson, they returned a solid core.
“Getting (the title game) was really great, but we know we have to put in a lot more work this season in order to get there again,” Lee County coach Brad Wicker said. “I think we’ll be ready come November.”
Before Lee faces its conference, it wants to test itself. This was the fourth game of the year against a 4A Wake County squad. Two more, against Apex and Fuquay-Varina, will be played later in the year.
“I loved playing these guys back in the Tri-9 (conference) and when I played in the Cap-8,” Wicker said. “If you want to be better, you’ve got to play the best guys.”
Wicker has grown the program almost by himself, coaching JV and varsity the last two years. Lee County players are limited to one area year-round club team without traveling to north Wake County.
“You start winning games and more kids want to come out, and that breeds success,” Wicker said.
9th minute: Peter Moreno header off a Chris Wallace free kick (Middle Creek 1-0)
25th minute: Alex Arroyo jukes two Lee defenders and the goalkeeper for an open-netter (Middle Creek 2-0)
Halftime: Middle Creek 2, Lee County 0
43rd minute: Emrique Lee nets a goalazo from 20 yards out (Lee County trails 2-1)
78th minute: Manny Almendariz scores a rebound to seal it (Middle Creek 3-1)
THEY SAID IT
“In our conference we won’t see kids that big, but in the state championship against Weddington all those guys were 6-foot-and-taller and my guys are tiny,” Wicker said.