Cary Clarets coach Dewan Bader considers his soccer team's first game against the Reading Rage "a changing moment in the season."
Less than three weeks into the season, the Clarets' 4-0 loss marked their low point. Since then, they've "been improving every game," Bader said. "They're definitely peaking at the right time of the season."
The Clarets are preparing for their third matchup against the Rage this year in the Premier Development League, the United Soccer Leagues' amateur division.
But the stakes are so much higher in this matchup of rivals from the top level of U.S. men's amateur soccer.
Facing off in the second round of the divisional playoffs tonight at 7:30 in Reading, Pa., the winner of this game goes on to the conference playoffs. A win there clinches a spot in the PDL Final Four.
"Our goal from the beginning of the season was to win this division," midfielder Conor O'Brien said.
"We did that, made the first step to becoming the best team in the state [by beating the Carolina Dynamo in the first playoff match]. Now this is the next step."
Reading is a heavy favorite, with a PDL-best 13 wins and more than twice as many goals this season -- 58 to the Clarets' 28.
But the Clarets' confidence has grown throughout the season, and a 3-1 win against the rival Dynamo didn't do anything to dampen that.
"All season long, we've been improving every game, and I don't think that's been true for other teams," said striker and team captain Zach Schilawski, who scored two of the goals against the Dynamo. "We just keep getting better and better."
Schilawski and Bader agreed that building team chemistry has been a priority from the start of the season.
Cary's last outing against Reading ended in a 2-2 tie on June 14. Cary led twice in that match before going a man down in the 73rd minute and giving up the tying score in the 80th minute.