As he exited the field following post-match handshakes, Corinth Holders coach Brent Walston walked arm-in-arm with the contest’s Most Valuable Player during the Pirates’ high-intensity boys soccer contest at Hunt.
But the performer wasn’t wearing the purple-and-gold of Walston’s Pirates.
Instead, Cooper Dean donned the blue and white of Hunt, which moments earlier had held off a late Corinth Holders threat to secure a 2-1 decision in Tuesday’s nonconference rivalry meeting.
Dean is a longtime family friend of Walston’s, who coached Dean — and several other Warriors — when they were youngsters on the travel ball circuit.
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“We go back to when Cooper was playing in a U7 league with my son (Ian, now a standout at North Johnston),’’ Walston said. “I coached that team along with Cooper’s dad. Those are some great memories. I remember Cooper when he was in kindergarten.’’
Dean added to his memorable moments list Tuesday with two goals, both of which came on lasers from about 40 yards out, as the Warriors (5-1) won the showdown between the clubs, both of which have the potential to make a deep run in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A playoffs – and maybe tangle with each other at some point in the postseason.
“Corinth Holders isn’t a far drive, so we’ve been able to develop a home-and-home series with (the Pirates) every year,” said Hunt coach Eric Nguyen. “We compare well to each other, so you know it is always going to be a good match. Coach Walston always has his team where it needs to do. We will be going there (for a rematch) in two weeks, and I’m sure they will have a big crowd.”
Despite the loss, Corinth Holders (4-2) continued its season-long penchant for not giving up. The Pirates had several strong opportunities in the closing 20 minutes, but couldn’t come up with the equalizer.
“We never stop fighting,’’ said Pirates’ sophomore keeper Ryan Mills. “That’s what this team is about. We are not going to quit.’’
The score was tied 1-1 at intermission before Hunt took the opening kick of the second half and immediately pushed the ball downfield. Corinth Holders attempted a clear, but Dean, a senior midfielder, jumped in on the play and quickly unleashed a rocket that dented the twine behind Mills for a stunning marker that gave the Warriors the lead for good.
“We came out (after the break) thinking we might could get something early,” said the left-footed Dean. “I think we caught (the Pirates) off-guard for a second. I love shooting from long-range like that. It’s something I’ve been practicing for years. I love to see what I can do. After years of practice, you can aim where you want (to shoot).”
Said Walston: “I hope that was a once-in-a-career shot – against us, at least.’’
Dean scored in similar fashion early in the first half with another blast from a similar distance, but Corinth Holders had tied the score 19 minutes later courtesy of Dillon Parker’s tally with 6:34 remaining before the break.
Said Mills: “I was told that (Dean) was a great player. There was no way I could stop (either of the shots), especially the second one.’’
THREE TO KNOW
Cooper Dean, Hunt: One of Hunt’s senior captains and team leaders, Dean delivered when it mattered most. In addition to his scoring success, Dean also helped the Warriors control the ball in the midfield, along with teammate Sean O’Brien.
“Cooper is such a big part of our program,” Nguyen said. “He is a very smart player who knows what to do every time (he has possession). It is a great complement (to Hunt’s speedy frontliners) when we have him to be able to take those (long) shots.”
Dillon Parker, Corinth Holders: Another senior veteran, Parker’s relentless work in the midfield helped create plenty of offensive chances for the Pirates, especially in the closing 25 minutes of the second half.
“Dillon is a very good little player,” Walston said.
Cameron Guarascio, Hunt: With Corinth Holders pressing down the stretch, Guarascio, another senior veteran, came up with a pair of clutch defensive plays to help preserve the Warriors’ lead. On both occasions, the ball was free in front of the net after an extended Pirates’ possession. With an open net behind him, and his keeper yet to recover from making a save, Guarascio became Hunt’s impromptu keeper and was able to make two saves in sliding fashion.
BY THE NUMBERS
2: Both coaches in Tuesday’s contest have served as the head coach at Hunt. Of course, Nguyen is there now, and Walston helped build the program from the 1990s and into the 2000s before going to North Johnston.
Nguyen and Walston both attended Hunt and played soccer there, though they were never members of the same team.
Walston’s connection to Hunt runs deep, and that is part of the reason why the rivalry between the squads, however competitive, still has a friendly tinge to it.
“When these two teams play each other, you know it’s going to be a great game,” Dean said.
7: The Warriors return seven starters from last season’s contingent, which claimed the Big East Conference championship in unblemished fashion. Hunt is considered the preseason favorite to repeat in the league.
“It’s definitely different because we have those seven guys back, but we also lost 13 seniors from that team,’’ Nguyen said. “We had a very deep team (in 2015).”
28: Hunt has been prolific through six matches this fall with 28 goals. Dean has five of them. The Warriors have also secured three decisions via the shutout route.
12: Walston spent one dozen solid years as the head coach at Hunt, working with players such as William Hesmer, who went on to star as a keeper for Wake Forest University and the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. Walston still resides in Wilson – right across the street from the Hunt campus, as a matter of fact.
3: The round of the playoffs that Walston compared Tuesday’s intensity level to during a post-match meeting with his players. Both squads made it to the second round last year – and both were defeated in one-goal heartbreakers.
THEY SAID IT
“You saw two high-quality teams (Tuesday),” Walston said. “Coach Nguyen has done a great job getting that program where he wants it to be. He has a very good group of core players, and we feel like we do, as well. This was just a great non-conference matchup.”