Eight Johnston County teams entered the first week of high school boys soccer with a common goal: bring home the Johnston United Soccer Association Cup, signifying their position as the top program in the county.
None of those teams achieved that goal, thanks to Mother Nature, who washed out two days of competition and caused the cancellation of one of the consolation round matches.
So we’re just one match away from getting the cup a new home for the next year with Clayton and West Johnston winning semifinal matches to set up a meeting later this season for the county championship.
The week was a crash course of game action and learning for all eight area teams. Here’s what we learned about the semifinalists:
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The defending Cup champion had probably the toughest opening draw of the tournament with a road date against Corinth Holders, a team that made the state 2A semifinals last season. The Comets fell behind 1-0 but rallied on goals from Chase Jones and Connor Jones, then withstood a torrential Pirate assault on the goal over the final 18 minutes of play to advance.
The Comets, under the direction of first-year head coach William Williams, appeared to be in another dogfight against Cleveland in the semifinals before a quick strike just before the half.
Clayton senior Aaron Olmo lofted a lead pass down the left sideline for sophomore Brandon Sainz who was rushing to the penalty area. The pass found Sainz in stride and he pushed the ball ahead to sophomore forward Daniel Alioto who drove a hard, low shot into the net for a 1-0 lead just 20 seconds before the half.
The Comets built their momentum from there, dominating possession throughout the second half.
Clayton’s second goal came 16 minutes into the half when Sean Kimble crossed a ball for Brendan Alexyon who headed the ball in for a 2-0 advantage.
Eight minutes later, Sainz found the net after a feed from John Rouse for a 3-0 lead and an easy route to a defense of their championship.
“It’s important for the team and the guys,” Williams said of winning the tournament. “It’s a great challenge, no matter who you play. But we’re seeing some new leaders stepping up.”
Williams would like to see better movement going forward from his team during matches.
The Rams and Comets had traded runs for most of the first 35 minutes of play but neither could turn those chances into a score.
“They’ve got to do it in the game,” Williams said. “By the time I holler about it in the game, it’s too late. We’ll get better. This is the first time we’ve played two 80s (full matches) and I was really happy with our conditioning,”
The week produced probably one of the most surprising finalists in the form of West Johnston, which couldn’t even muster much of a reaction of relief after a game-winning golden goal.
The Wildcats advanced with a 2-1 win when South Johnston took a bad foul in the penalty area just three minutes into the golden goal period. West’s Jonathon Atherholt drove a rising shot into the upper corner of the net to allow the Wildcats to escape.
“I’m amazed we had any luck left,” said West Johnston coach Ken Sweat. “Smithfield-Selma deserved to win that match (the Wildcats’ first-round 2-1 tournament win) and we knew how lucky we were to get out of there with a win. And South Johnston deserved to win this one.”
The Wildcats’ first goal cane six minutes in when Seth Bondurant found himself in a right place, right time situation when South’s goalie couldn’t hold onto a shot from Cristian Santos after a West Johnston corner kick. Bondurant one-timed the ball into the net after it got away from the Trojans’ goalie.
Sweat expressed disappointment with his team’s effort in both matches: “We’re not going after 50-50 balls like we should and we’re losing possession on challenge plays too much. At best we were very stationary instead of pushing the action.”
West keepers Luis Ceballos and Keith Smith turned back shot after shot from the Trojans’ offense.
“These guys need a wake-up call,” Sweat said. “And I’d rather it come now than when we get to conference play. It’s a good group but things aren’t going like they should be. We need somebody to step up.
“We’ve got three senior captains and they seem hesitant to step up and push the team. That has to change.”
If the cup went to the team that stylistically played the best, South Johnston would have a great argument for itself despite taking the 2-1 loss to West Johnston.
The Trojans’ offensive and ball movement got better and better as the match progressed, taking advantage of solid passes off of the backline.
Up front, the Trojans’ front line, centered around Jorge Barahona, created great scoring chance after great scoring chance, strung together pass after pass and put up number of seemingly mid-season form extra passes. Unfortunately for South, none of those resulted in actual goals, aside from Barahona’s strike midway into the second half.
The Trojans haven’t won the cup since 2000.
“We were very tentative for the first 20 minutes, maybe thinking about playing a 4A team,” said South coach Rami Kauppi. “I think we took advantage of their tired legs at times. We had chances to put it away, we just didn’t. It’s just one of those things.
“But it was a very good first week for us, just wish we were moving on in the tournament.”
Cleveland, which downed Princeton 9-0 in the first round of the tournament, broke through with about three minutes to play when Brett Koehmstedt won a battle with a Clayton defender on the right goal post and popped a pass across the goal. That’s where Nick Brinke was with a diving header to the back of the net.
“We want to establish possession and drive the ball into the corners to make teams cover the whole field,” said Cleveland coach Fabrizio Bonilla. “It’s part of our gameplan, we just haven’t been applying it to the games.”
The Rams’ offensive threats were limited to mainly counter attacks against the Comets.
“We just need more practice together,” Bonilla said. “We didn’t have the kind of participation we wanted in summer workouts, so practice time is valuable to us right now.
“We just want to be ready for conference play and we’re playing teams that will get us ready, like Clayton, Fuquay-Varina and Garner.”