When he became Knightdale’s girls soccer coach during the offseason, Aaron Steele offered a simple but challenging proposition to his veteran-filled squad.
“I told our players that our motto was going to be to make the second round of the playoffs or bust this year,” Steele said. “With the people we had come coming back, I thought we had a good chance to be able to accomplish that goal.”
Steele’s plan is on track to date as the Knights are currently in third place in the Greater Neuse River Conference standings after registering a 9-0 home victory Wednesday over league rival East Wake. Knightdale is 8-5 overall and 4-2 in the GNRC – marks that would help the Knights qualify once again for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs.
Against East Wake, Leah McCray delivered a hat trick for Knightdale, while teammates Taylor Ward and Elizabeth James tacked on two tallies apiece. Ward’s second goal with 2:24 remaining in the contest finished off the proceedings due to the mandatory 9-goal differential rule.
“We had balanced scoring for the match, which is kind of the way it has been for us all year,” Steele said.
With only two starters lost from Knightdale’s 2015 contingent, Steele knew his crew had the potential to be a factor in the GNRC and beyond this spring. But the Knights encountered some early adversity in the league with tough one-goal losses to Clayton and Garner.
“The kids have been great – this is an easy team to coach,” Steele said. “We’ve just had games where one or two mistakes have cost us. We will keep things close but then have a rough spot. We’ve played some good teams that have been able to take advantage of that.”
While Knightdale is enjoying a strong season, East Wake (1-11, 1-5) is in rebuilding mode under coach Michael Howes. The Warriors’ lone victory came last Monday in 4-0 fashion against Southeast Raleigh.
“The game against Southeast Raleigh was a really good one for us,” Howes said. “But some of our other games ended like the one (versus Knightdale). We have some talent, but we tend to have trouble scoring. We don’t have a lot of team speed, which hurts us. We have some younger players who have done well for us.”
Team captain Chloe Fanelli is a junior who has split time between keeper and midfield for the Warriors. Howes has also been impressed with the spirited work of freshmen midfielders Lilly Bates and Lauren Johnson. Center mid Sandy Gonzales in one on only four upperclassmen on East Wake’s roster.
Knightdale’s strength is in the midfield, where Ward (a junior who has committed to Queens University) serves as a tri-captain along with senior mids Brenna Hardy and Tori Leech. James is another key cog of a midfield group that has the skill to both dribble and distribute – or drop in goals off the rush.
Forwards McCray and Kate Ward offer the finishing touches up front. McCray has plenty of speed up the wing, while Ward, the younger sister of Taylor, is a ninth-grader who has already earned the moniker of ‘freshman phenom’ from Knighdale’s public-address announcer.
“We definitely work well together as a team,” Leech said. “We don’t have a junior varsity team, so some of these freshmen have to come in right away and contribute for us. As older players, it’s our job to help the freshmen make that adjustment from middle school to high school. The young players continue to grow – the program is in good hands for the future.
“Overall, this team has a good feel to it – we just have to sharpen up and harness a few things.”
Another instant-impact ninth-grader is keeper Mallory Aycock, who works behind a solid defensive group that is anchored by senior Erin Giunco.
Knigtdale’s roster features an eclectic mix of six seniors, six juniors and six freshmen – and zero sophomores. Many of Knightdale’s juniors and seniors earned extensive playing time as part of a 2015 campaign that ended with an opening-round playoff loss at D.H. Conley.
“I actually saw that game,” Steele said. “So I knew what this team was going to be capable of this year.”