The name of the game in the state playoffs is, of course, to survive and advance.
And while Cleveland wasn’t able to do that on Wednesday night in its third road game of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A girls soccer playoffs, the Rams had every right to claim a moral victory.
In the 61st minute freshman midfielder Tina El-Amoor scored on a rocket from 30 yards out on an assist from classmate Sable McNulty, getting the Rams their only goal in a 4-1 loss to heavily-favored Northern Guilford.
The win propelled the second-seeded Nighthawks (17-1), who had drubbed Cleveland 8-0 in an identical situation three years ago, into Friday’s Eastern semifinal against Two Rivers 3A Conference champion and No. 5 seed Corinth Holders.
Cleveland (11-10), which had the No. 24 seed in the bracket, had gotten to the third round with a 2-1 win at No. 11 Southwestern Randolph followed by a 1-0 victory at No. 7 seed Eastern Wayne.
Northern Guilford has been the class of the Mid-State 3A Conference for the past five seasons, going undefeated in league play en route to five straight titles.
And the Nighthawks proved their superiority late in the first half on Wednesday.
Northern freshman Hayley Magnussen – who has 20 goals this season – scored the first of her two goals in traffic in the 21st minute, and Grace Marion made it 2-0 on a header off a corner kick from Wingate-bound senior Kayln Williamson two minutes later. Avery Ward scored from Lauren Atwell in the 36th minute to end the first-half scoring, as the hosts had outshot Cleveland 11-0 at the break.
Cleveland got its first shot on goal in the 42nd minute, but Magnussen stretched the lead to 4-0 in the 48th.
Northern outshot the Rams 17-2 for the game, with Cleveland freshman Cara Davis recording 13 saves.
“Cleveland was really organized defensively,” said fourth-year Nighthawks coach Wes Lewis, who also volunteers with the women’s program at Ferrum (Va.) College in the fall. “They had four back and two really clogging up the middle and really forced us wide. We like quick through-balls and we couldn’t do that. ... Once we figured out they were sitting back, we knew we had to get the ball wide and that really opened up some passing lanes. Once we went wide, then the middle opened up a little bit. We were settling for 40-yard spots early and their goaltender was really good.”
The future should be very bright at Cleveland, where Brittanie Baker, Kendall Lamm and Morgan Maxwell were the only seniors for first-year coach Ken Sweat.
“The girls did what they’ve done all year and fought hard,” said Sweat, whose team got off to a 1-6 start but recovered to finish 8-2 in conference play and earn a playoff berth. “We had a better second half against Northern Guilford. We were a little lucky that they didn’t score in the first 20 minutes. In the second half we gradually got to it. The goal we scored came from getting our backs involved, and that’s what we want to do.”
He continued: “We got great leadership from the seniors all year. Early on they were getting used to me and we played some really tough opponents. But the seniors created a family atmosphere that really brought the team together. If that hadn’t happened the season would have been a disaster. Technically our keeper is right on, and she made a big difference in a lot of games.”
Freshman Cara Davis has been a force between the posts all season, recording 126 saves.
“I never count,” Davis said with a laugh. “I’ve been playing goal for a long time, and the team has been really supported. Most of our defense is made up of sophomores, so I think we’ve got a bright future. I didn’t know how big a deal making the third round of the playoffs was until everybody started talking about it.”
Junior Anna Ford led the Rams with 24 goals. Freshman Tina El-Amoor had four, including a highlight marker in the final game of the season against Northern Guilford.
“We’ve been playing for the seniors,” El-Amoor said. “We worked hard for them and for each other. I think our chemistry got stronger and stronger as the season went on and we were really motivated by the playoffs. We fought through some adversity, but I think we’ve responded really well.”