In the Triangle Town Center parking lot outside of Dick’s Sporting Goods, two high school boys’ soccer coaches struck up a conversation that turned into a bit of a summer daydream.
Other counties have tournaments where all of their schools play for county pride, but not Wake County. Unfortunately, it is too big to be as all-inclusive.
“But wouldn’t it be neat if there was one?” one coach said.
“Wouldn’t it be neat to have a Champions League format? Where qualifying would be based on how you did (the) previous year?”
“Wouldn’t it be neat if we could find a way to include those smaller and private schools?”
And soon, Cardinal Gibbons’ Tim Healy and Heritage’s Scott Sloan – with help from Sanderson coach Todd Worley – started forming the inaugural Wake County Cup.
The new tournament just completed the group play portion; all that is left is a triple-header of finals scheduled for Sept. 14 at Cardinal Gibbons. Apex will play Sanderson for the title.
“The success is going to be (measured) that last day,” Sloan said. “That’s the crown jewel. We have three games back-to-back, everybody’s playing for something. We’re really looking forward to that one.”
Format fits the county
Unlike neighboring county tournaments like the Johnston United Soccer Association tournament and the Orange-Chatham Tournament, the Wake County Cup isn’t played in one week.
The games are staggered over a month and has a qualifying element to the teams involved.
“It still lets you create that nonconference schedule the way you want,” Sloan said. “I like the fact it’s more like group play where you see an opponent and then you don’t see another (Cup) opponent for another week.”
The staggered games also allowed for more dates to reschedule games for rain-outs – the first group-play round was moved back a day. Sanderson, Heritage and Gibbons each hosted games. Gibbons will host the finals because its artificial turf allows games to be played no matter the rainfall.
In the coming years, qualifying for the tournament will be similar to the formula used in the UEFA Champions League and other professional soccer competitions.
The conference champions from the Cap Eight and Southwest Wake 4A conferences get automatic bids into the following year’s Cup, as does the defending Cup champion. The runners-up in those conferences are likely to also get bids.
“It’s something where you have to earn it from one year to the next,” Healy said. “That’s the one thing high school sports don’t have – a carry-over. Whatever you did last year is done and it doesn’t matter. Which is fine. But it’s kind of nice for the underclassmen coming up to say, ‘Next year we’re going to play in it.’ ”
For Wake County teams in leagues where there are non-Wake County schools, a finish in their league’s top two will likely be required for a bid. This includes Gibbons, Wake teams in the Greater Neuse River Conference, a few charter schools and N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association schools.
Franklin Academy, after being a 1A semifinalist last year, initially wanted to decline. But the players wanted their chance to test themselves against 4A teams.
“Everyone needs to have a shot and an opportunity,” Healy said.
Cup play begins
Although this year’s Cup features six teams, Healy said in the future that eight teams will be invited with two four-team groups.
Apex won Group A, with a 3-0 win against Heritage and a 9-0 win against Franklin Academy.
Sanderson won Group B thanks to extra-time wins against Garner (4-3) and Gibbons (2-1). Tournament rules make both teams play extra time if there’s a tie after regulation, and then to penalty kicks if there is still a tie after that. Goals allowed is the next tiebreaking criteria after goal differential in case of a three-way tie.
However, tournament rules differ from N.C. High School Athletic Association rules that call non-conference games final after regulation.
So while Garner lost 4-3 to Sanderson in extra time and defeated Gibbons 4-3, both games will go down as ties for NCHSAA playoffs. With the NCHSAA switching to seeded playoffs, that distinction is important.
Garner, Gibbons and Sanderson all technically went 0-0-2 in group play.
The winning Wake County Cup team will receive a plaque for keeps and a Cup that isn’t.
The Cup will stay with the victor until the next year’s Wake County Cup, when it’ll be up for grabs again.
The biggest positive, said Worley, was that it’s making regular-season soccer games an event.
“I’ve talked to coaches from Apex, Heritage, Sanderson – they’re excited to play a regular-season game against a team, I think that’s where it has some success. There’s something on the line, and everyone wants to play for it,” Healy said.
“I think everyone’s going to come away from it very positively. And I think it’s going to hopefully build a little momentum for next year, have people get excited and want to participate.”
Healy looked back at the stands where a good-sized crowd had gathered for a Monday night game at Sanderson for the end of group play.
“They brought a great crowd because not only were they playing Gibbons, but because (they knew) if they win they were in the championship,” Healy said.