Each of the past two seasons, the Panther Creek girls’ soccer team has earned a berth in the 4A state championship game, with last year’s trip netting a first-place trophy.
But after losing nine games this year — including four straight to enter the playoffs as the 30th-seeded team — some were ready to call 2016 a rebuilding year for the Catamounts.
Three wins later, including Wednesday night’s 1-0 road squeaker over Sanderson, Panther Creek is three games away from a third straight championship appearance.
So what happened?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
It took getting a few players back and a little Moxley. Standout freshman Emily Moxley to be exact.
Just like the previous game against Knightdale in the second round of the playoffs, Moxley scored first for the Catamounts. In the 26th minute, she received a long pass and turned to find just the Sanderson keeper between her and the goal.
Though she’d struggled with finishing shots at times this season, she deftly buried this one past the keeper for what would prove to be the final margin in the game.
“She just continues to, not amaze us — because we know she has the potential to be even a conference player of the year one day,” Panther Creek head coach David Grant said.
Moxley was part of a furious opening half from the Catamounts. Their speed caught Sanderson off guard and Panther Creek notched 14 shots in the first half.
“The two girls up top were dominant in the first half,” Sanderson head coach Todd Worley said. “We weren’t ready for that.”
Desperate to avoid a second straight playoff loss to Panther Creek, the Spartans switched to man-marking on defense.
The switch worked. Sanderson flummoxed the Catamounts for much of the second half and began applying more offensive pressure. In the 72nd minute, a corner created a loose ball near the fall post. Amid a scrum of players, the ball appeared to roll into the net for the equalizing goal.
But the referee cut the Sanderson celebration short, disallowing the goal because of a rule giving possession to the keeper if she has even a part of her hand on the ball before it crosses the line.
Then the Panther Creek team displayed the moxie that’s propelled a young team deep into the state playoffs, holding off the Spartans for the final minutes to advance.
“At times you’re going to scramble,” Grant said. “But how can you handle yourself overall? Are you going to let that situation there in the end where we were up 1-0 and they’re throwing everything at us overwhelm you, or are you going to stay organized and manage things going forward and be able to fight through it like we did?”
With potentially three other teams from their conference remaining on their side of the bracket, the Catamounts will face familiar competition in their path to another state title berth (they visit No. 26-seeded Middle Creek in the state 4A quarterfinals Friday). But they’ll rely on the same things to keep advancing – a little bit of Moxley and a lot of moxie.