If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that Thursday’s night scrimmage between Chapel Hill and Riverside was a regular season boys’ soccer game.
There were three yellow cards, hard fouls that left scowls and ill tempers, and a hat trick. In other words, intensity. That was no surprise to Tigers’ coach Jason Curtis.
“I think everybody is just ready to get the season rolling,” said Curtis, whose Tigers defeated Riverside 4-3 in its final friendly before the regular season opener versus Eastern Alamance on Tuesday. “We’ve been at it almost two weeks now against ourselves, and we just want to get playing.”
Sam Linker scored a hat trick for the Tigers, but it was Arthur Mouw’s header off a Ryan Shaifei corner which proved to be the game-winner.
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On Wednesday, Linker scored CHHS’ only tally in a 1-1 draw in its initial scrimmage versus Northern Durham.
Player turnover is a part of soccer at all levels, whether it’s due to graduations, transfers, or duties to a national team. The Tigers lost their top returning scorer, John Walden, to the Capital Area Railhawks Academy team in Cary. Walden, who scored 24 goals in leading CHHS to an undefeated run through the Big 8 Conference last year, will still attend classes at Chapel Hill, but also will travel throughout the southeast in the 12-team U.S Soccer Development Academy’s U17/U18 Eastern Conference.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t go, but ...” said Curtis with a grin, knowing the inevitable would unfold the way it did. “He gave us everything we could ask for.”
With Walden’s departure, Curtis benefitted with a surprising transfer: 6-foot-1 centerback Justin Meeks. The sophomore from Blacksburg, Va., moved to Chapel Hill in June. Meeks triggered a frozen rope on a 30-yard free kick in the 31st minute Thursday that just went wide. His steady play along the backline helped keep Riverside scoreless in the first half.
“He’s a big kid,” said Curtis. “We have five or six players that we can rotate on the back line. I feel really good about us there.”
With 2013-14 Big 8 runner-up Cardinal Gibbons now in the 4-A PAC-6 Conference, the Tigers figure to be the heavy favorite for another Big 8 crown. At a time when high school sports participation across all sports in down in North Carolina, CHHS soccer only suffers from the rich getting richer. Curtis lost nine seniors, but had 60 players report to tryouts earlier this year.
“This is the deepest group of players we’ve had in the 17 years I’ve been here,” said Curtis, who was an assistant under head coach Ron Benson for 15 years. “We’re going to miss John, but we’ll be fine.”
For Riverside, not everything was lost. After trailing 2-0 at halftime, striker Peterson Michael scored twice in the second half. Michael’s wide strides make him easy to distinguish on the pitch, along with his unique ability to fire a penalty into the left corner with his left foot.
“I was talking to my assistants after that goal,” said Riverside coach Jose Santibanez, also in his second season. “He’s been doing that all season in training, so it’s good to see that in a game.”
A native of Haiti, Michael spent last season at Goldsboro High before transferring to Riverside for his senior year.
Riverside opens with Orange on Aug. 24.