As the clocked ticked away on its first N.C. High School Athletic Association girls soccer championship, Panther Creek did what it had done so well all year. It got the ball and didn’t give it up.
Panther Creek capped off an undefeated season with a 2-0 win against Charlotte’s Providence High at the Dail Soccer Complex at N.C. State. After dominating possession in Saturday’s 4A title game, the Catamounts now possess the championship hardware they had longed for since last year’s heartbreaking loss on the same stage.
The Catamounts were no underdog story: this is what they had wanted since a 1-0 loss to Hough in the second golden goal period of last year’s title. And led by coach David Grant, the team kept a razor-sharp focus on reaching its championship goal. It used last year’s as motivation and kept humble amid the hype.
“This has always, always a driven group, no matter what they do; if it’s a training session, a game like this or something off the field in the classroom,” Grant said.
Grant helped hone in that focus on March 4, when he tweeted a pic of The Cary News’ girls soccer conference preview after it had been run through a shredder with the caption: “When your past calls don’t answer. It has nothing new to say.”
“It makes us stay humble and I think that’s important,” senior forward Justine James said. “It’s funny at the time and maybe you’re frustrated because there are all these great things (being written) about us, but (we) take a step back. He puts us in reality.”
The Catamounts (20-0-2) made sure to strike first in this year’s final against Providence (23-2-1). In the 29th minute, sophomore Meredith Hamby scored the goal after a cross from Emma Socha. Hamby took a touch near the top of the 18-yard-box, then hit it low and away from goalkeeper.
“I thought my touch was really bad to begin with,” Hamby said. “But I just did what I could with it and finished far side.”
Hamby was named MVP. She had another shot in the second half hit the crossbar and was integral in the Catamounts holding up the ball in attack.
Panther Creek made use of the larger field, getting the ball wide to Sydney Rucker on the right wing, who created multiple chances by crossing the ball back into dangerous spaces.
“We knew that going into the game the way we could win was possession in the midfield because there were huge gaps,” defender Rachael Everhart said. “We definitely played that to our advantage and made it work.”
Panther Creek led 1-0 after halftime until James, as she has done often in the playoffs, took a strike from distance and found the back of the net. Her goal in the 65th minute from 25 yards out barely missed the goalkeeper’s mitts into the upper 90.
“She made a great pass to me, there was nobody on top of me so I took a shot and it went right above the goalie’s hands,” James said. “We knew we couldn’t let up.”
Another hallmark of Panther Creek, now 43-1-3 over the past two seasons, was that all 11 players were willing to drop back and defend at any time. Panther Creek allowed just six goals on the season and had 16 shutouts.
It was so dominant on Saturday that Providence had only a handful of chances on goal.
Sportsmanship awards went to Brittany Matsinger of Panther Creek and Mia Thillet of Providence.
Panther Creek was also playing for Laura Yost, a sophomore who likely would have been on the varsity team this year who was killed in a car accident on the way to school in the fall. Yost’s JV number, No. 8, was on a black patch on each player’s sleeve.
“We fought through so much adversity this season. We had girls leave the team and injuries, and we’ve come out of it all strong,” Everhart said. “We got to where we wanted to be.”